A Graduation Address for the Son Who Greatly Disappointed Me


What follows is a condensed version of an address I gave in June of 1997 to the graduating high school class at Trinity Christian School in Pittsburgh, PA, when I was pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA). I would have been 49 years old. (I am now 70, and, as all old people do, I ask, "How could it have been that long ago?" For as many years to pass by the time I die as have passed since I gave this talk, I would have to live to be 91!) It was kindly picked up and edited the next spring to serve as a "Soul Food Column" by my old friend from Washington days, Dr. Marvin Olasky, Editor of World Magazine (May 16, 1998).

As I wrote this address out in long hand in my study (I failed the only typing course I ever took and did not learn to type on a computer till the first decade of the present century), I had two persons in mind - me and one of my sons for whom my heart ached. (He knows who he is.) As it turned out, I am the only one of the six males in my family who has consistently lived up to the standard of averageness. The son I had in mind when I wrote this has greatly disappointed me by rising far above average to much success in his chosen field. I will not identify his field except to say that he may me the last one ever to let you down.

On Being Average

I want to speak tonight briefly to the superior students, and mostly to the average ones. 

If you're wearing the cords of the National Honor Society, if you won a most-valuable-player award, or you are otherwise one of the "cool kids" in the class of 1998, I have only three brief areas of counsel to offer you: (1) It's possible that you've been a "big
fish in a small pond." At college you may find you are only a medium or even small-sized fish in a big pond. In other words, you may not be as good as you think. (2) Don't blow your advantages. Don't go to college thinking you've got it made. Work hard to exploit all your strengths. (3) None of your achievements is a substitute for loving God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. As Jesus said, "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).

I want to talk mostly to you average graduates because I am eminently qualified to speak to you. When I graduated from high school 33 years ago I was decidedly average - no athletic letter, no academic honors, no "cool kid" status.

But I want to tell you some ways you can be excellent:

First, you can be an excellent Christian. There is no correlation between being average athletically, academically, and socially, and being average spiritually. In fact, if anything you have an advantage. One of the most important elements of being a healthy, holy, useful Christian is knowing how much you need the Lord Jesus Christ, how inadequate you are in yourself, and how only by God's grace can you be sufficient for anything. It may take a long time and many hard knocks for more gifted people to realize this reality, but you know it already. A wise man once said, "It is not great gifts God uses, but great likeness to Christ." Timothy was an average young man. He didn't enjoy the best of health, didn't have a strong personality, and didn't feel qualified for what he was called to do. But his fellow Christians spoke well of him and Paul assured him that God would use him: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7). Give yourself to Christ. Rely on His Holy Spirit. And you will excel as a Christian.

Second, you can be an excellent friend. Choose your friends carefully because your friends will have a great influence on you. But don't choose friends
because they will join your pity party about being average. Choose friends who will challenge and help you to be a better Christian. I don't mean "goody-goody types" but real people who will join you in the struggle to live a life that pleases God. And be a real friend. Proverbs 20:6 asks, "Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?" Real friends are loyal, and trustworthy, and there when you need them.

Finally, you can be an excellent person. Have you read the Dylan Thomas poem that protests old age and death? Do not go gentle into that good night ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light. I don't want you to spend your life raging against your mortality, but I do want you to "rage, rage" against mediocrity. Quit using your being average as an excuse. Don't be angry with God because he didn't make you more talented. Don't say, "What do you expect of me? I'm only average." Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Character is more important that intellect. Guts are more important than ability. On A Prairie Home Companion they used to advertise Raw Bits, a breakfast cereal for shy people who need to get up in the morning and do what has to be done. I have to eat a big bowl every morning. You may be slow, but you can run as hard as you can all the way to first base every time you get the bat on the ball. You may not be able to buy your clothes at the finest stores, but you can take pride in your appearance. You may not be able to make all A's but don't let anybody out-work you. There is nothing wrong with being average, but there's everything wrong with being a lazy, "don't care" underachiever.

Here's my testimony in three simple sentences: I'm a miserable sinner. I am a man of average ability. "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

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