MBU Commencement 2005

“Change, Choice, and Chocolate”

Missouri Baptist University
Commencement Address
April 30, 2005
Dr. R. Alton Lacey, President of the University presiding

Faculty and Staff, graduates, happy but broke parents, and friends, it is my pleasure to address
you on the occasion of the 33rd commencement of Missouri Baptist University. While I do not
normally speak at commencement it seemed appropriate to call my own number during the
institution’s 40th year and my 10 th year. Besides, the person I invited had to cancel at the last
minute.
At last count I have attended nearly forty commencements and every one had at least one speaker
so I pretty much know what my role is. It is sort of like the corpse at an Irish wake. No one
expects you to say anything but they can’t have the party without you. However, in looking for
at least a few words of wisdom to share with you I came upon some memorable quotes from
notable commencement speakers past.
Columnist Russell Baker in a 1995 address said, “The best advice I can give anybody about
going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It’s a mess.”
Donna Shalala, former U.S. secretary of health and human services said this at a 2000
commencement, “You are about to go from 130 vacation days to 7.”
Comedian Al Franken told Harvard graduates in 2002, “This spring countless graduates of other
universities have been told, ‘It’s lonely at the top.’ It’s not. Believe me. It’s much, much
lonelier at the bottom.”
Former U.S. Treasurer Katherine Ortega told a group of graduates, “In time you will meet up
with other people who think they have all the answers. These people are called bosses. My
advice is: Humor them.”
I also ran across an article that appeared in USA Today with the subtitle “Commencement
Speakers Rarely Offer Useful Wisdom.” The author then proceeded to dole out useful advice
such as: “You’ll lose every nice umbrella, but that ugly orangeandblack
striped one will stay
with you till you die.” “Ask the phone and cable companies for the first appointment of the
day.” “”You become a lot less fun once you have to wake up at 7 A.M. for work every day.”
“Life is not school. A master’s degree in fine arts won’t make you a painter, painting will.”
I remember when you showed up on campus. We greeted you at Welcome weekend, we went to
Cosmic Bowling, we fed you well (at least the first weekend), we prayed over you at President’s
Chapel and I pronounced you Spartans with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto.
You snickered at that phrase then but today we all take it a bit more seriously. Then you were
off to the races. You have proven yourself to be a pretty interesting group. As you move to the
next step of figuring out what you will do with the rest of your lives and as you struggle to sort
out the differences between career and vocation, allow me to offer a few words of wisdom that I
hope may be at least a tiny bit useful, and if not, they will be brief and get us closer to the
moment for which you really came. I have called it change, choice, and chocolate, and if not
inspired it is at least alliterative.
First, things will change. I encourage you to embrace and manage that change. Make friends
with bit. You will get older and believe me there is just so much that Grecian Formula and
Gold’s Gym can do. There will come a day when washboard abs won’t seem so important. I
know that sometimes you look at your professors and think, “Lord please don’t let me look like
that when I’m 50”, but the kind of change I am talking about goes beyond just the physical
changes you will encounter. When I was your age Bob Dylan, who is often quoted by my
generation, sang, “…the times they are achangin”
and “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the
wind.”
I thought of those words when I recently heard a story told by Jim Wallis. He was addressing a
group of people who had come to Washington to lobby Congress. He wanted them to be able to
quickly recognize the members of Congress so he told them, “They’re the ones who walk around
town with their fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which
way the wind is blowing. The political leaders are really very good at figuring out the direction
of the wind, and are quite used to quickly moving in that direction.” He goes on to say that it is
not a matter of malice because many of them really want to do the right thing but they have to
adjust to the realities of power and wealth and they need public backing to make a difference.
So many times we think that changing our society is a matter of replacing politicians and when
that does not work, we get discouraged and disillusioned. But that is where we make our
mistake. You don’t change society by replacing politicians; you change society by changing the
wind.
With a Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, Martin Luther King changed the
wind. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson told King that a voting rights act would not be possible for at
least five or ten years. But King, through peaceful means, dramatically shifted the public debate
and altered the political context to make a voting rights law possible. It was passed in 1965, a
mere five months after his conversation with the president.
It occurred to me one day that my grandmother was 33 years old before she was given the legal
right to vote. Her mother, just because she was a woman, never voted. There are people in this
room with us today who did not receive the right to vote until 1964, the same year this institution
was founded. You received it when you reached 18. You did not have to pass a gender or skin
color test. You inherited that privilege and many others because there were people who went
before you who were wind changers. That is what people of faith and conscience are supposed
to be. As a graduate of MBU you hopefully have honed the spiritual values that give you a
vision for change that is more than walking around with your finger up in the air to see which
way the wind is blowing. Use that knowledge to lead by example, and do not be afraid of
change.
Second, life is choice. American society has a problem. Modern American culture with its
ceaseless waves of messages from movies, television, music, newspapers, magazines and the
internet has overwhelmed us. We have become so desensitized to the truly outrageous that we
hardly even blink at tasteless billboards, commercials, half time shows and other public displays
that test the bounds of decency. In many cases we have not only tolerated this behavior but we
have made stars of those who flaunt ribald language, demean women, or loudly threaten and
intimidate anyone who happens to disagree with their world view. Relentlessly catchy slogans
and slick advertising bombard us with the messages that we need to have the latest clothes,
electronics, exercise equipment, cars, and other products that make us look better and make our
lives easier. It affects us all. Regardless of whether liberal or conservative or what faith group we
belong to, Christians are in danger of succumbing to a small “s” spirituality that is bolstered by
flimsy self help techniques and the wish fulfillment that we use to take the edge off our
materialistic lives. We are not the first to have this difficulty. Most of the Biblical prophets’
warnings were sounded to nations that were made up of endangered souls who had the same
problem.
The author of Proverbs captures the range of choices that people make in life when he writes,
“Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” (Proverbs
15:17). You will be faced with the choice between people and things, for time against driven
ness, sufficiency over satiation, contentment against consumption.” You will be tempted by easy
credit to go ahead and have it all without waiting. The good life will beckon to you with a
sweetness that is both tranquilizing and transitory.
We have a society in need of transformation. Indeed one of our goals was to give you the tools
you need to make the right choices so that you can remake society in the image of Christ. Most
of you came here with an already defined sense of Christian morality. Indeed many of you chose
MBU because it would support your commitment. But we need only look at WorldCom and
Enron to see that knowledge is no guarantee of trustworthy character. Our founders knew that a
democratic society must rest upon an educated and moral citizenry. Society is not served well by
either intellectual pygmies or immoral geniuses.
The writer of the proverb is making a value judgment when he says one meal is better than the
other. He is making a choice. As you live your life, you are choosing, and one choice is not as
good as another. Popular writer Thomas More was asked by a student during a campus visit,
“What should I look for in a job?” He told him to ask, “What are the chances of my making
really good friends at this company?” It may seem absurd in a way but there is truth in the
statement that you always get what you ask for in life, so be careful and make good choices.
Life is change and it is choice, but I have also heard it said that life without chocolate is no life
at all. People the world over awoke to the exciting news last year that high quality dark chocolate
is now known to have positive health benefits. It provides protection against heart disease, high
blood pressure as well as other health hazards. Did you know that chocolate is the number one
favorite food of women and number two for men, trailing only pizza? What got me to thinking
about this was one of those articles that people send across the internet. Most of the time I delete
them but this one came from my daughter so I decided to read it. You may have seen it. In it the
author says she got to thinking one day about all the women on the Titanic who passed up dessert
at dinner on that fateful night in an effort to cut back. She went on to say that the days of our
lives get shorter, and the list of promises to ourselves gets longer. One morning, we awaken, and
all we have to show for our lives is a litany of “I’m going to”, “I plan on”, and “someday, when
things are settled down a bit.
It is a long way of saying that life is too short not to take advantage of opportunities to live it to
the fullest. Someone once asked Billy Graham what was the greatest surprise that he had found
about life. His response: “the brevity of it.” Every minute of life is a gift from God. Breathe
spirit and passion into everything you do. Celebrate the human spirit. Cultivate a sense of
humor. Go to the Grand Ole Opry and Grand opera. Don’t let the snobs and rednecks tell you
that you cannot like both. Go to museums and plays and concerts. Go see the pyramids in Egypt
and the Eiffel Tower in France. Send me a postcard when you do. 1 College Park Drive, St.
Louis, Mo. Or better yet, send me a picture from your picture phone.
This past year I lost three mentors: my longtime home town pastor Dr. Clifton Tennison, my
graduate advisor Dr. John Drakeford and my mentor in Christian education Dr. G. Earl Guinn.
They all lived long, happy, productive lives and the youngest of them was 88. Dr. Guinn
addressed our commencement in 1998 when he was 85 years old. He is the only person I have
ever known who received a standing ovation for a commencement address.
I conclude with his closing remarks to MBU graduates. They are as relevant today as when he
spoke them:
Education at its best produces knowledgeable servants. The servant mentality is all too lacking
in our greedy, pleasure seeking, morally corrupt world. We look to people like you to put on the
servant’s apron and go forth and lift us to a higher level. Liberal education is education that
liberates. It is designed to free us from the conventional, the contemporary and the local. But
liberal education does more than liberate us from – it also sets us free in order to choose wisely,
to pursue knowledge, to behave responsibly and to bind up the wounds of a bleeding humanity.
There are millions who are hungry. Feed them. Multitudes cannot read or write. Teach them.
Masses of men, women, and children have never experienced freedom. Liberate them. All about
us are persons who know nothing but pain. Relieve them. Countless numbers still walk in
spiritual darkness. Show them the Light.
I challenge you to take as your example the One who rejected the throne in favor of servanthood
and the cross. This is the noblest expression of a truly enlightened mind.
Now your studies here are over. The end has come. In a few minutes you may shout with Martin
Luther King, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.” God speed and
Shalom.