My 7 minute Commencement Speech at Samford Graduation

In Defense of Normal*
Samford University Commencement, December 2014
Matthew Kerlin

Thank you Dr. Westmoreland and good morning to you all – trustees, friends, broke parents, proud grandparents, antsy siblings, picture-happy loved-ones, exhausted colleagues, and distinguished graduates. Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be your second choice commencement speaker.* Over 7.1 billion people in the world and I made the top two. Now, I’ve worked in higher education for over 2 decades, and I’ve attended enough graduation ceremonies to know two things: (1) you aren’t here to listen to me, and (2) I am standing in the way of you hearing your graduate’s name called and getting to lunch. So let’s get down to business. Today I want to speak in Defense of Normal.

First, let me cover the obligatory inspirational advice that all commencement speeches should contain. Ok, are you ready? Follow your dreams, change the world, overcome obstacles, be courageous, don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, be creative, be a life-long learner, be yourself, love others, stay true to your faith, stay true to your family, trust yourself, smile, have fun, be positive, work hard, don’t settle, don’t hold grudges, ignore your critics, listen to your critics, go make a difference in the world, give something back, Oh the Places You Will Go, and the world will be better for it. Does that sound familiar?

Actually, some that is good advice, but you already know most of it. The truth is that you can follow all of that advice and still not become anything like the people who typically give you that advice. Most graduation speeches are delivered by people who are famous, or wealthy or influential or highly successful by societal standards, politicians, entertainers, powerful business executives. They are usually the people to speak at graduation precisely because they are exceptional – exceptions to the rule. But I am the rule.

By contrast, I am rather ordinary. I am not rich or famous or powerful. I’m not as smart as most of my colleagues, not even as smart as many of my students, because after all, this is an exceptional place. I’ve been married for 23 years, but I am not a marriage expert. I have three kids and they’ll tell you that I’m not a perfect parent. I’ve taught courses in campus ministry but I work with people who are better ministers than me. I am an atypical graduation speaker because I am just a normal guy. But maybe that makes me the ideal person to speak today In Defense of Normal.

The truth is that most of you are going to be relatively normal. I mean that statistically, most of you are not going to become exceptionally wealthy or famous or powerful. Most of you won’t make a revolutionary discovery, or find a cure for a notorious disease, or write a best-selling novel, or become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s not just OK. It’s GOOD, because what the world needs is not a few more celebrities trying to fix what is broken while posing for photos. What the world needs is a few billion normal people committed to making the world a better place; a few billion normal people willing to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth”; a few billion normal people willing to live like Jesus; a few billion normal people willing to fight poverty and disease and racial inequality and violence in all its forms; a few billion normal people who love their families and their neighbors and do their jobs well, day after day after ordinary day. And the sum total of all that normal would indeed be exceptional.

In her poem “To be of use,” Marge Piercy writes this: “The work of the world is common as mud.” In his letter to the Corinthian and Thessalonian churches, Paul wrote this, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”; and “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” In an op-ed piece to the New York Times, Garrison Keillor wrote, “savor this peaceable street and its lawns and driveways, kids’ bikes leaning against the house, the listless cat on the porch, the sheer beauty of ordinariness.”

Today you should feel no pressure to achieve the outlandish, or to live up to the nearly impossible expectations that you may have for yourselves or perceive from those around you. The problem with idolizing greatness is that one day you wake up in your 40s and your life looks relatively ordinary and you think you’ve failed. There is no reason to make that mistake. As a theologian, I would argue that the meaning of life consists not in what you accomplish, but in what God through Christ has already accomplished. This frees you to live with simple gratitude, to be faithful in the small things, to be kind when no one is watching, to be honest when it profits you nothing, and to be hard working when nobody thanks you. Aristotle calls this the virtuous life, the means between the extremes, the normal. So make the virtuous life the normal way that you live.

No, you may not achieve remarkable success according to the standards of our society. But as Samford graduates, you have learned how to live by a higher standard. No, you may not become rich or famous, but as Samford graduates, you WILL change the world. You may not do great or historic or revolutionary or exceptional things. But as Samford graduates, you can do normal things with exceptional love, for the glory of God. And I know that you will.

God bless you and congratulations!

*[The video of this speech can be seen on YouTube here. Dr. Westmoreland’s introduction and my speech can be found between 16:21 to 28:04.]

* [The originally scheduled speaker for commencement had to leave town for a funeral.]