The Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me When I Graduated from High School
(NOTE: I had the wonderful honor of speaking at my son’s high school graduation Sunday. Here’s a written version of my remarks.)
Memorial Baptist Church, Buies Creek, N.C.
June 5, 2016
By Steve DeVane
Good morning. Let’s read the scripture for today. I’ll be reading Mark 10:35-45 from The Message.
35 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
36 “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
37 “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”
38 Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”
39-40 “Sure,” they said. “Why not?”
Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”
41-45 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
I’ve titled my presentation this morning, “Things I wish someone told me when I graduated from high school.” Today’s scripture has three such lessons. In other words, this is what I wish I would have known all the time I’ve been trying to make my way in the world. And if we have time, I might mention a few others that aren’t specifically addressed in today’s passage, but are found in the Bible and based on Jesus’ teachings.
First, let me say what an honor it is to be asked to do this. I want to thank Ed and the youth committee for thinking of me and giving me this opportunity. Second, I want to thank Daniel for not vetoing the idea. I half expected him to launch some kind of petition drive to stop it. Maybe a protest outside the church this morning with signs that say “No Sermon from Steve,” or “We Want a Real Preacher,” or something like that. I expect he’s scared to death that I’ll say something truly embarrassing, so here’s hoping we both make it through the next 20 minutes or so with our dignity intact.
I’d also like to make one disclaimer of sorts. None of the jokes in this sermon were pre-cleared by my wife. She hates it when I tell jokes. A number of years ago, my brother-in-law, who had recently become pastor of a church in Durham, asked me to read the scripture at his installation service. On the way to the service, I went to tell Cherry that I was going to tell a joke. She stopped me before I even finished the sentence. I said, “I think I might tell a jo…” when she shouted, “No!” She wouldn’t even me tell her what the joke was. It was a good joke. It was one of those jokes that have two punch lines. You know, when people laugh at the first part of the joke and you hit them with the end, which is even funnier. I regret to say that aren’t any jokes that are that funny today, but I hope you’ll like what I have to say anyway.
As I was preparing for today, I thought about my graduations. I figured that I could gain some inspiration from the remarks at those ceremonies.
I’ve been in three graduations – high school (Douglas Byrd High School in Fayetteville, Class of 1980, Go Eagles!), college (Campbell University, Class of 1984, Go Camels!) and seminary (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Class of 1987, Go … preachers?).
But here’s the thing – of all three, I only remember one line. Lynne Hinton, who was either student body or senior class president at Byrd, said one thing she wished for the graduates was faith, faith in ourselves and faith in God. She was a preacher’s kid, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her mention God. Maybe that’s why I remember it. (Lynne is now a well-known author, who has done the class of 1980 proud.) But I can recall absolutely nothing from the graduation speech at Campbell, given by David Funderburk, who was then ambassador to Romania and would later become a congressman. And, I hate to say it, but I don’t even remember who spoke at my seminary graduation.
I realize this isn’t your actual graduation, but just in case any of you are asked to speak at one of your kids’ graduation events 30-some years from now, I want to be sure you’re covered. That’s why I’m posting a copy of my remarks on my blog, stevedevane.com. I’ll put a link of Facebook later. Maybe tweet about it on Twitter. Send it to my followers on LinkedIn. I’m afraid I’m not yet cool enough to Instragram it or Snapchat it or whatever it is you do on those sites, but you young folks should feel free to share it in any way possible. My blog could use the hits.
I’m not sure if being a famous blogger is in my future, but I admit to occasionally wishing to be well-known. I once dreamed of working at the Washington Post. Like many journalists, I wanted to be like Woodward and Bernstein, breaking the Watergate story.
In the scripture, James and John had their own dreams of glory. They had been with Jesus long enough to know that he was doing great works. They thought they had an “in” with the future ruler of the world. They wanted to have “the highest places of honor” in Jesus’ glory — one at his right, the other at his left. It reminds me of the State of the Union address, where the vice president and the speaker of the House are sitting right behind the president. James and John wanted to be the top guys.
What has always seemed unusual to me is Jesus’ response. He asks them if they’re willing to go through what he has to go through. When they say yes, he says that in fact they will have to go through it, but as awarding the places of honor, that’s not his decision.
But here’s the thing – don’t you wonder why Jesus didn’t rebuke them for wanting greatness. Wouldn’t expect him to admonish them? He just told them they’d have to go through what he was going to go through.
Then, when the other disciples got angry, Jesus clarified the situation. It wasn’t bad to want to be great. They just needed a more correct definition of greatness. If they wanted to be great, they needed to serve.
That’s the first thing I wish someone would have told me when I graduated from high school – it’s OK to want to be great, but if you want to be great, serve other people.
You see, I was taught at a young age to be humble. There’s nothing wrong with humility, but I wrongly thought that humility and ambition were opposites.
In the 1990s, I covered a court martial at what was then Pope Air Force Base. Now, courts martial are similar to civilian trials, but they have some differences. In this particular case, the judge wanted to closely monitor media coverage of the case. At the beginning of the proceedings every morning, the prosecutor would tell the judge that there had been a story about the case in the morning paper. The judge would ask to see it, and the case came to a halt while the judge read the story to himself, my story. If you want to know the definition of nervousness, it’s sitting at a court martial while the judge read the story you had written about the previous day’s proceedings. That happened every day.
As the case was nearing its end, I was sitting in the courtroom waiting for the jury, which is called the panel in a court martial, to come back with its verdict. The judge happened to walk in to get some papers from the bench. He happened to notice me and called me up. The case wasn’t going on, but I was off-the-charts nervous. When I got up there he asked me if I was the newspaper writer. When I told him that I was, he gave me one of the biggest compliments of my career. He said that of all the stories that he’d read, there hadn’t been anything that wasn’t accurate. He then offered to write the editor of the paper a letter telling him what a fine job I’d done covering the court martial. I said, “No, that’s OK. You don’t have to do that.” He said, “OK,” and walked away. Here was a military judge willing to tell my boss how great I was doing, and I turned it down. That’s not humility. That’s stupidity.
It’s OK to want to be great. Just make sure you serve other people.
Another thing I noticed about today’s story how James and John approached Jesus. Have you ever considered what kind of guts it must have taken for two guys who had seen Jesus perform miracle after miracle to ask him what they asked him. First, they said they wanted him to do something for them. When he asked what it was, they said make us your two top lieutenants.
I thought it was unusual until I thought about who it was making the inquiry. Jesus had given James and John a nickname. You know what it was? Sons of thunder. Kind of sounds like a tag-team wrestling name doesn’t it? “Now in this corner, weighing at a combined 500 pounds – THE SONS OF THUNDER.”
We’re not exactly sure why Jesus gave them the name, but I expect that asking to be the two top guys in Jesus’ kingdom was right in character for them. We also get some insight into the brothers in Luke 9. Jesus has sent some messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to find a place to stay, but the people there wouldn’t welcome him.
James and John asked Jesus if he wanted them to “call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate” the people in the village. Jesus said “Of course not.”
So when the brothers asked to be at Jesus’ right and left side, they were just being who they are.
That’s the second thing I wished someone would have told me when I graduated from high school – it’s OK to be who you are.
Think about it. You’re the only you who ever was and ever will be. Or has Dr. Seuss has so eloquently put it,
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”
You’ll be most successful if you let yourself be the person you’re supposed to be. The good news is that you’re the only person who can decide what that is.
Nearly everyone in my profession gets ahead by being overly aggressive. Reporters always want to “scoop” other publications. I discovered early in my career that I wasn’t very good at the intimidation game. Eventually I decided that I had to be myself or I was going to be miserable, which wouldn’t have been good for my well-being or my career.
When I left work at the newspaper in Kinston, one of the other reporters wrote a column about my departure. His description of me made me realize that I had made the right decision. Paraphrasing, he said that most reporters think you should do whatever it takes to get the story. Steve would disagree, but he’d get the story anyway.
Be who you are. It’ll be enough for whatever you face.
Finally, notice that James and John actually asked Jesus for what they wanted. They wanted to be great. They thought Jesus could make it happen, so they asked him.
That’s the third thing I wish someone had told me when I graduated from high school – it’s OK to ask for what you want.
One of favorite television shows is American Pickers. These two guys travel around the country and buy old stuff from people. Often, they buy stuff that many people wouldn’t consider valuable.
But other times, they’ll see something from the road that they really want to buy. It might be a beautiful old sign or a classic car. They’ll stop and ask the owner if he wants to sell it. Sometimes, they get rejected, but other times, they’ll end up loading the item in their truck. They say other people often ask them how they got the person to sell something he obviously treasured. Their answer, “We asked.”
There’s a Latin phrase attributed to Virgil that is translated “Fortune favors the bold.” If you want something, go for it.
You’ll also note that in Matthew, it is not James and John, but their mother who asks Jesus about giving James and John the spots of honor. You wouldn’t normally think of the sons of thunder as mama’s boys, but perhaps she was the “thunder.” Can you imagine their mother saying, “Jesus. Jesus. Get over here. I need to ask you something for my boys.”
For James and John, in a way they got what they wanted. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle and played major roles in the early church. In Acts 12, James was put to death becoming one of the first church martyrs. Of course, John is believed by some to be the author of the Gospel of John and four other New Testament books.
So as you go out on your great adventures, be great, be yourself and go for what you want.
Here’s a couple of quick bonus lessons I wish someone had me when I graduated from high school.
Stay calm. When I used to cover the military, I discovered that one of the top characteristics that the Army looks for when selecting soldiers for their most elite units is the capacity to stay calm in the midst of chaos. If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Black Hawk Down,” you’ll understand why.
When you think about it, Jesus was probably the calmest person who ever lived. Time and time again, when the world was coming apart, he kept it under control.
So when the … junk hits the fan, stay calm. It’ll help you figure things out.
Know this, you don’t have figure life out in order to live it. I don’t have it all figured out. And I think maybe that’s the secret, realizing that you’ll never have it figured out and enjoying life anyway.
Here’s what I do know. God loves you. You can never do anything that will make God love you less. We can’t even imagine how much God loves us. No matter what you do, no matter what situation you get yourself in, you can be sure that God love you and is with you.
There’s a saying that a former headmaster at Cape Fear used to say. I think that if you don’t remember anything else, remember this. It’s kind of like a call and response. So when I say, “All the time,” you reply with “God is good.” When I say “Good is good,” you say, “All the time.”
“All the time, God is good. God is good, all the time.”