After sweating through four years of classes, those graduating from high school this weekend will likewise endure somewhat muggy commencement exercises. Seniors will mark the transition from high school with large amounts of humidity-laden pomp and circumstance.
“Commencement exercises” is misleading. Aside from pulling beach balls out from beneath their robes, these events are hardly strenuous. But there will be plenty of words tossed around with those graduation hats. Speakers will extol and exhort, and some may even exhume old memories.
Graduation speeches proclaim heartfelt yet often ignored messages. As a preacher, I know that experience. Will people listen? Will they remember? Will the words of my mouth convey the prayers of my heart?
It’s hard to tell what sort of words will overcome inattentiveness by reaching into our imagination. The mystery of speech is that the speaker never really knows how their words will be received and remembered. But even words rooted in moments of time can stand the test of time.
When the prophet Isaiah wrote that “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever,” he understood the complex nature of speech. Some words are fleeting while others stick closer than the sleeves of a graduation robe on a humid evening in May.
For example, in 1964 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, offered these timeless words during his lecture after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize: “In spite of spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing.” King continued by saying, “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”
King borrowed a long-used aphorism, but it worked. It still rings as true today as when he said it in 1964. And it still rings just as true as when my father said it to his high school graduating class in 1939.
“Centuries ago,” wrote my father Frank Keating, “a Hindu philosopher made a prediction. He said, ‘We will learn to swim the sea like a fish, fly the air like a bird, but always man’s chief problem will be in learning to walk the earth like a man.”
My sister and I recently found the speech he gave to his graduating class at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Chicago. The carefully typed manuscript is well preserved, its last-minute penciled revisions still visible, and carefully creased midsection fully intact. Its 80-year-old words could have been written yesterday. (The source of the quote is disputed. It does not appear to have originated with Hinduism but did appear frequently in books and speeches of the time.)
His short address was packed with timeless observations.
“We shall see,” my father said, “the great and inspiring truths of science used for the selfish interests of men. And without the help of others we must distinguish between the social and personal rewards and choose the better course. By ourselves we must decide between the cheap, instant gains and the distant, but far more satisfying ones.”
He conveyed what it means to live by faith, and wrestled with spiritual truths that presciently described the coming decades.
“We see man’s interests turn from music, literature, and art to guns, bombs, and gases. All around us there is jealousy between classes and misunderstandings of the motives of men. Contemplation of the problems of society is bewildering and fills us with fear for our futures.”
What was to come, of course, was the invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler in a few months, and the attack on Pearl Harbor two years down the road. Six years later, my father and mother married, their honeymoon cut short by my father’s service in World War II. He lived to see a future mixed by both stunning achievement and unsettling fear.
Perhaps that is all that needs to be said — to the Class of 2019, or to their children and grandchildren to come. Our enduring challenge will always be learning to walk the earth as human beings.
Keating serves as pastor of the Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wildwood. He is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.