2022 Commencement Address
Wess Stafford ’67
It’s a real joy for me to come back and to be a part of this wonderful milestone in your lives!
Abraham Lincoln once said in a speech, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here today.” While he was wrong about the Gettysburg Address—most of us have memorized all 272 words of it—he would have been right if the Gettysburg Address had been a commencement address.
I did a little research at Compassion International last week: only 5% of our staff can remember who spoke at any of their graduations. Only 1% can remember anything that was said. This may well be the least teachable moment of your entire academic career. I don’t flatter myself that you will remember on what I’m saying here today, but it is my duty to attempt to make one final impact on your lives. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember who spoke when I sat in one of these chairs 45 years ago getting my masters degree here at Wheaton, nor do I remember anything that person said. It’s possible that what I want to share with you today, in fact, that person shared. I just don’t remember.
In case you doze off, the Cliffs Notes of these remarks are “it’s a jungle out there,” so be different and be better. And as a child of God, it’s not that hard
I graduated from Wheaton Academy in 1967—55 years ago. It’s been a half a century of building on the foundation that I received at this remarkable, remarkable school.
I’m proud to be a graduate of this school, and I’m very grateful for the time that I was able to spend here. Wheaton Academy equipped me for college, it equipped me for a lifetime of service. I pray that it will be the same for you as you step forward.
I realize that you have been uniquely courageous warriors all through your high school journey. In our 168 years, only a handful of other classes will have had to persevere as you have, having half of your high school years consumed by the threat, interruption, and challenge of COVID. The four years of your high school life was perhaps the most troubled time in our nation in over half a century.
But today, you emerged from all of that victorious. You emerged triumphant. You emerged from those trenches, and we are proud of you. We’re so very, very proud of you. You’ve been tested, and you’ve been strengthened by that victory, and it will serve you; I promise you in the steps forward to face the new challenges of tomorrow.
Your year verse, 2 Peter 1:3, speaks well of your journey forward and where you’ve come from. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” Like no graduating class in the history of Wheaton Academy, you’re being sent out into a divided, hostile, dangerous, and desperately lost world. We don’t often sing hymns like this much anymore, but an apt him for today’s world and your role in it as Wheaton Warriors could very well be,
“Onward Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.”
The diplomacies you’re going to receive in a few minutes are well earned. Tomorrow, you’re going to wake up, and you’re going to take your place in this next leg of your journey. And I can assure you, you have been well prepared. Wheaton Academy graduates are generally very successful at what they put their hand to. I encounter them all across the world. They’re good at what they do.
But in the few moments we have now, I want to challenge you to consider beyond “what you’re going to be” lurks an even more important question—a question whose answer will direct your path, guide your daily life, your relationships, ultimately dictate the degree of your success, and your significance in this world and beyond.
The question is not merely what will you be, but more profoundly, who? Who will you be?
You can stop and premeditate this pivotal issue at particular markers in your life, or it will merely evolve along the way in response to circumstances as you live your life. It’s my prayer that 55 years down the road you don’t wake up disappointed with who you have become.
Don’t get me wrong, what you do does matter. But I have learned from my own life and watching the lives of those I graduated with that the definition of failure for a Christian is to succeed at something that doesn’t really matter.
It’s beyond sad to discover several decades after you have struggled and worked to climb rung-by-rung the ladder of success that, when you reach the top, it’s leaning against the wrong goal. It doesn’t matter how fast you climb, how high you climb, how many people you impress all the way up that ladder, if it’s leaning up against the pointless, meaningless wall of the wrong Kingdom.
The good news: this crazy, messed up world is not home. It’s merely a campsite along the way, so don’t waste time putting a fancy foundation under your pup tent. Why? Because we’re not going to be here that long. It occurred to me yesterday when I rented the car down out of O’Hare, that I have never had all my years ever washed a rented car. Why not? Well, first of all, it’s not mine. And I’m not going to use it that long. And I think that’s true of everything that we have in our life that looks like possessions.
Listen carefully, we hear a different drum.
We march to the cadence of a different drummer.
We belong in an upside-down kingdom.
Our King says, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12), so be different from the inside out.
In our kingdom, the first are last, and the last are first. The strong are weak, and the weak are strong. The big are little, and the little are big. The rich are often poor, and the poor are often rich. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. The path to greatness is to be the servant of all. It’s not about outward appearance but about the heart. It’s not about getting the most toys here. It’s about treasure in heaven. It’s not about victory. It’s about surrender. To gain your life, you must lose it. It’s not I, as we’ve sung, but Christ.
So, we are called to be different in this world but not of this world. We are called to see differently, to think differently, to feel differently, and ultimately, to act differently. We’re also called to be better in who we are and in what we do.
Jesus spoke so eloquently about this in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5. This was powerful, authoritative teaching. No stories, no parables, no Proverbs, no “guess what I’m talking about.” The Beatitudes are clear cut about who we’re supposed to be. The mandate to be salt and light which implies different and making the world around us better. We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.
In that message, Jesus drew a line in the sand, and he said, “You have heard it said, but I say…”, and he did that five times launching a new kingdom. He culminates, as we heard in verse 47, “What are you doing more than others?” You are my children. You belong to my kingdom. The world has its standards, but I expect more of you.
“What more are you doing?” implies not just the expectation to be different, but to be better.
So five decades removed from high school and after many years of life experience, I have come to this conclusion: anything done by a person who has committed to Christ should be done better than the world can possibly do it.
Christians have every advantage. Soccer team, it’s like playing soccer downhill. You can swing and kick at the ball and miss it entirely, and it still rolls in the right direction. It’s like running a race with the wind to your back.
I don’t think you have to be a Christian to be a good doctor. But any doctor who is a Christian should be an exceptional one: filled with compassion, and integrity, and excellence. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good teacher. But every teacher who is a Christian should be an excellent teacher. Their classrooms filled with love and respect and patience, teaching more by example than even by words. Yeah, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a good architect, a good nurse, a good scientist.
The same is true of whatever you do. Who you are matters. If ever there was a time for Christians to make a difference and to add that special excellence of who they are to what they do, this is that time. This is that kind of world.
So, what advantages do we as Christians have to be different and better?
The first one I can think of is we have prayer.
We have the invitation at any time under any circumstance to approach Almighty God with praise and with the cries of our heart. That’s an invitation and a mandate. “Call to me, and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things that you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
We also have the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our prayers, thankfully, don’t have to be eloquent, but the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf. He leads us, He guides us, He comforts us, he defends us, he lives in us. He gives us wisdom and helps us be what we should be, and who we want to be. The very groanings of our heart become Shakespearean prose to the ears of God as the Holy Spirit speaks on our behalf.
Another great advantage we have is the Word of God, the Scriptures. It is the most amazing guidebook for relationships, for integrity, perspective, vision. What a treasure. I encourage you to run to your Scriptures every day, especially in times of great victory and in times of defeat.
We have the power of the cross. We are redeemed. We don’t live for ourselves. What was done on the cross gives dignity and worth to everyone we encounter. The cross simply changed everything.
We have the example of Christ who showed us that life can be lived differently and better, even in this fallen world in which He was living. We have heaven, the hope of eternity. The great joy that this world is not all there is. This world is not our home, and this kingdom here is not our kingdom, but what we do here affects all of eternity for ourselves and for others.
Finally, we have the great Christian heritage—examples—the legacy of those who have gone before us, and who have lived faithfully among us. You’ve watched this faculty for four years. You know what I’m talking about. And today, we’re not alone. We have fellowship of brothers and sisters. Look around you. Those are lifelong friends you will have. Family to hold us accountable, to pick us up when we fall.
One last, quick challenge I want to put to you is all of this difference and pursuit of who we’re supposed to be should be for a cause. Everybody needs a cause, something outside of yourself. Something not about you, something bigger than you. Something that deserves your time and your talent and your treasure. Something that can move you to tears in 30 seconds or less. Either tears of great joy at the victories or tears of great sorrow with a need that needs to be expressed.
At this point in your life, what is your cause? What’s your mission? What is your passion?
If nothing comes immediately to mind, don’t live like that. We don’t have time for you to live like that. Find your cause, embrace it, make this world a better place because you were here being different and being better.
What a treasure. What an advantage. What a mandate.
Is it any wonder that Jesus calls us in Matthew 5:47 to be different and to be better? That he asks us, “What are you doing more than others?”
Why do we do more? What is the ultimate motivation for this? In Matthew 5:16, in the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it abundantly clear. “Let your light so shine before men who you are, that they will see your good works, what you do, and they will glorify your Father, who was in heaven.”
We send you forth into the world that desperately needs you. You are well on your way toward what you will be. My final call is a challenge to prepare equally well for who you will be.
We began with Abe Lincoln, so I’ll give him the last word.
This story is told about Abraham Lincoln as he was exiting a church service in Washington DC. As he shook hands with the minister, the minister said, “Well, Mr. President, what did you think of my sermon?” Abraham Lincoln replied, “Well, it was fine. But you didn’t ask me to do anything great.”
I don’t want to make that mistake today. As you graduate from Wheaton Academy, class of 2022, go forth in the power of God as His strength is made perfect in your weakness. Your verse says it all so well: “He has called you, and His divine power has given you everything you need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3). So be different. Be better. Pursue your passion, your mission and do it all to the glory of God.
I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.