Today You’re at Bree

Middle Earth Map

President Krueger, honored guests, distinguished faculty, staff, and administrative colleagues, friends and family members, and most of all to you, the Concordia University Irvine graduating class of December 2017:

I stand here acutely aware of two things:

  1. I am the last thing standing between you graduates and your diplomas; and
  2. Because of item 1, it is extremely unlikely that you will remember anything I say here today.

I’ve been a member of Concordia’s faculty for more than 25 years.  I’ve attended every commencement ceremony organized by the university during that time except one, and to be honest, I only really remember two graduation speeches:

  1. The one given by Tommy LaSorda, the former manager of the LA Dodgers, because he was famous; and
  2. The one by Dan van Voorhis, a former Concordia history professor, back in 2002, when he graduated from Concordia and gave the student response. I remember van Voorhis’ speech because he quoted Britney Spears and made a reference to the Transformers – and this was before the Michael Bay movies ruined the brand, so it was still hip and trendy.

Well, I’m not famous, and I’m not so good with the pop culture references, so here’s my message for you today: Welcome to the Journey.

Wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t we just finish the journey? Isn’t that the whole point of today? We get our diplomas, we walk across the stage, and we mark the end of college? Yes. Of course it is. Today is a tremendous milestone for each of you. So bask in the glow of that for a while. Enjoy this day. Celebrate with your friends and your families.

And then, step out into the next chapter of your life.

Because as big an adventure as college may have seemed, it will pale in comparison to what comes next. Now you get to take everything you’ve learned and put it to use. Now you get to get to have adventures such as dealing with the world of full-time work, going to graduate school, perhaps moving on to the next level of marriage and family, and the greatest “adventure” – wrestling with student debt.

Seriously, though, now you get to discover who you will become as a result of what you’ve learned and what you do with what you’ve learned. That’s what happens on the journey. As one of my mentors in graduate school was fond of saying, “When we journey, we are not only moved, we are changed.”

I’m hoping that, whether you’ve completed our traditional undergraduate program, our online bachelor’s degree program, or our nursing program, at some point during your time at Concordia someone talked to you about what it means to be a wise, honorable, cultivated citizen.

If I may speak for the faculty and staff for a moment, that’s what we’ve been trying to do here – help you all become more wise, more honorable, more cultivated, and better citizens than you were when you arrived.

Those aren’t just meant to be pretty-sounding words. We believe they are the hallmarks of an educated person – and our world desperately needs that sort of educated person.

In an age of fools and rabble-rousers, when people’s heads are turned by the next shiny object, and when we find it increasingly difficult to look up from our cell phones and engage meaningfully with each other, we need men and women who are truly wise – who can discern the true, the good, and the beautiful, and who can help others to do the same. People who have grappled with some of the world’s great ideas and realize how much more they have to learn.  People who understand that, as the Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

In an age of liars and charlatans, harassers and bigots, con men and cowards, we need men and women of honor. People who are willing to embrace the notion that right and wrong still mean something, and that virtue is worth pursing, even when it lies along the more difficult path. People who understand that true leadership involves servanthood – as Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” And he demonstrated what servanthood means by giving his life as a sacrifice for us, so that we could be restored to right relationship with God.

In an age when cultural literacy is sometimes derided, and particularly in America, where we’re tempted to assume that the rest of the world wants to be like us if only they could, we need women and men who are cultivated. People who have some knowledge and experience of cultures, past and present, that are different than their own. And more important, people who are willing to keep learning about other cultures, and about the natural world around them as well. People who aren’t afraid to be thoughtful, smart, sophisticated, introspective, nuanced, insightful, and sensitive.

And finally, in an age when politics is devolving into one set of talking heads yelling at another, in the bitterest and most partisan terms, we need men and women who are citizens. Who understand that civil discourse and reasoned debate are the hallmarks of a civilized society. Who are willing to engage thoughtfully around important issues, who recognize that intelligent people of goodwill may differ on those issues, and who understand that citizenship involves serving the common good, coexisting peacefully, and protecting everyone’s rights, not seeking entitlement or claiming privilege.

So, have you got all that? Are you ready to do everything on that list? I know, it’s a tall order. If we’ve done our jobs, then you should be walking out of here today with at least some inkling of what I’m talking about. And even if you haven’t mastered every aspect of being wise, honorable, and cultivated – and my comments have only scratched the surface – I hope that you’ve learned how to learn, and that you’re leaving here with a desire to keep learning. To keep growing. To continue the journey. Because today’s when it begins.  Ready or not. That’s what’s commencing at your commencement.

One more thing. How many of you here are familiar with The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Perhaps you’ve read the books, or seen the movies? (I’m using a pop culture reference after all.) In the first book and film, Frodo Baggins and his hobbit friends set out on a journey. They don’t know exactly where they’re going beyond their first destination – which is a town called Bree, not very far from home. They arrive after some mishaps, they meet a mysterious man named Strider, and they think they’ve had a great adventure. And they have. But it pales in comparison to what comes next – encounters with kings and wizards, elves and monsters, terrible evils and great acts of heroism, and a quest that they couldn’t have imagined when they started. And Strider? He turns out to be a king in disguise. If you haven’t read it all, I won’t spoil the rest, but trust me, it’s worth the read.

Today you’re at Bree. The first big stop. It’s an accomplishment. But you’re less than halfway through the first part of your trilogy. Now you get to go out and write the rest of the story. And as you do, I encourage you to do a few things:

  1. Gather some friends for the journey. People who will support you, and challenge you, and help you grow.
  2. Remember that there are people here and elsewhere who are pulling for you. Praying for you. Because we believe that God is with you on your journey. So drop us a line every once in a while, to let us know how it’s going.
  3. Think about what you’ve learned here – what sort of person you’ve become. And what sort of person you want to become.  And what you’ll do about that.
  4. Listen for the still small voice of God. In His Word. In your heart.  In the voices of friends and family. You see, I believe that God has callings – vocations – for all of us. I encourage you to listen for yours. And to look for the King in disguise.

So welcome to the journey. May God bless you as you continue on your great adventure.

Peter Senkbeil is Provost at Concordia University Irvine. He delivered this commencement address on December 16, 2017.