A GRADUATION CHALLENGE
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A speech given at the Calvary Road Baptist Academy and Awards Program,
Most commencement speeches are far too long and are often filled with platitudes, barely listened to by drowsy students. I will therefore try to hold your attention by telling you two brief stories, which I hope will be of some slight benefit to you on your graduation from high school, Sarah Jane Waldrip.
My maternal grandmother, Myrtle Clevenger, died exactly fifty years ago, when I was fifteen. But she made a profound impression on me, mostly through the stories she told of her own childhood. She always referred to herself as a “hillbilly” because she was born in the backwoods of Missouri and raised in dire poverty. One of her stories went like this.
Far back in the woods where she lived there was a rumor that a wildcat was on the loose. Myrtle heard terrifying accounts of this monstrous creature that filled her eight-year-old heart with horror.
Her mother was pregnant. Her father was gone on an errand. It was after midnight, and she was fast asleep. Then, through the darkness, she heard her mother’s voice: “Myrtle, Myrtle, wake up. The baby is coming, and the fire has gone out.”
It is difficult in our day to imagine the terror those words brought to her childish mind. For, you see, back in the woods in the late nineteenth century, when the fire went out you were in real trouble. She took a poker and pushed it through the embers of the fireplace, but alas they had gone dead cold.
“Hurry, Myrtle,” her mother said, “you must take the pail and go to the next farm and get some live coals. Hurry. I can’t deliver the baby in the dark.”
She grabbed the pail and went out into the night. Clouds covered the sky. There was no moonlight. She ran blindly down the road toward the distant neighbor’s farm. Then she heard a twig snap and the soft footfalls of an animal approaching from behind. It was the wildcat! She knew it instinctively.
Myrtle began to run as fast as her eight-year-old legs could carry her. But the faster she ran, the faster the sound of that wild creature’s feet could be heard on the ground behind her. Faster and faster she ran, and faster and faster the sound of the monster cat’s pounding feet came, closer and closer. It was about to pounce on her. Her wind was gone. She tripped and fell, with that tin pail in her little hand.
Then she looked up from where she was lying on the road. The clouds had parted, and the moon shone through, bright and clear. Standing directly in front of her, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, was a huge grizzly bear, its arms raised above its head, ready to charge at her.
There she lay, trapped between a monstrous bear and a charging killer cat. She did the first thing that came into her childish mind. Myrtle hurled the tin pail with all her strength at that grizzly bear. The pail hit the bear in the midsection of its body. But, wait! When the tin pail hit the bear the wrong sound came back. It was the sound of metal striking wood! The bear did not move. After a moment more of terror, she approached the animal. The clouds had now completely dispersed. The moon shone down nearly as bright as day. The “bear” was only the gnarled trunk of a tree.
But what about the mountain lion? Suddenly she realized that the charging footfalls of the lion were nothing more than the pounding of her own heart.
She arose, picked up the pail, made her way to the neighbor’s house, got the live coals, ran home, lit the fire, and helped her mother deliver a baby boy.
At that point in the story Grandma would always raise one finger and pronounce the moral lesson, which I always thought was a verse of Scripture from the Bible. Her finger raised, Grandma always said, “Robert, the moral of that story is, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’” I heard her say that so often that those words were engrained in my subconscious mind. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
I knew they were words taken from the Bible. But later, after I was converted, I began to look for that saying in the Scriptures. I went through a Bible concordance and tried to look it up. But I couldn’t find it anywhere in the Bible. Then one day, after Grandma had died, I asked my mother where that saying was. Mother said, “Robert, don’t you know, that’s not in the Bible.” “Well,” she paused, “it’s almost in the Bible. President Roosevelt said it in a famous speech during the Great Depression. ‘You have nothing to fear but fear itself.’” It was almost in the Bible, to us, because President Roosevelt seemed to us poor folks like an Old Testament prophet, or at least one of Christ’s apostles.
So, from those far-off days fifty years ago, Myrtle Clevenger’s little story has followed me, and it has helped me greatly in times of fear and distress. “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Sarah Jane Waldrip, on this the occasion of your graduation from high school, I give you that story, and don’t forget it. When the fears of life come to you, as they do to everyone, please try to remember those wise words of President Roosevelt, “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” When trials, hardships and lack of self-confidence seem to overwhelm you, remember, “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
The second story I leave with you, Sarah Waldrip, is an even shorter one. The great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill led his nation through the Battle of Britain with grit, fortitude and force of character. It has often been said that no one on earth could have led the British people to victory against Hitler’s war machine but this one man – Churchill. England would surely have fallen to the Nazis if Churchill, and Churchill alone, had not been her Prime Minister, a man who extolled the virtues of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” and inspired good men the world over to wipe Hitler from the face of the earth. Churchill won the Battle of Britain simply because he would not give up. No matter how hard the war would become, with 9/11-like bombs falling on England night after night from Hitler’s airplanes, Churchill inspired his nation with words that have become immortal.
We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight in the fields; we shall fight in the streets; and we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
In 1946, a few months after World War II ended, Churchill was asked to speak at a graduation ceremony like this one. He was by now an old man, but he was ready to speak to those graduating students at a great university. The chancellor of the school gave a very long introduction about Churchill before he spoke. It was so long that Churchill’s time was used up.
To great applause, the British war leader rose to speak. He stood for a long moment before the faculty and the student body. A hush fell over the crowd, and then Churchill delivered the shortest, and yet most memorable, graduation speech in history.
After a long pause, he looked out over the vast crowd of graduating students, and said,
Never give up. Never, never, never.
And then he sat down.
The chancellor rushed to the podium and said, “Mr. Churchill, don’t you have something else to say to the graduates?”
Churchill rose slowly and came back to the podium. And then he said once again,
Never give up. Never, never, never.
As he sat down, tears streaming down his face, the crowd rose up and gave him a five-minute standing ovation. Churchill flashed his famous V for victory sign a couple of times as the crowd thundered their approval. Every one of those students and faculty said it was the greatest commencement speech they had ever heard.
You may have learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were close allies during World War II. Roosevelt could not stand without heavy, painful iron braces on his legs, due to the ravages of polio. Even when he was able to wrench himself into a standing position, his son or one of his aides had to clinch him by the arm, or at any moment, he might fall to the floor in a tangled mass of metal that supported his lifeless, bone-thin legs. And Winston Churchill had to overcome a severe speech impediment which made it very difficult to understand him when he spoke. But he overcame it and went on to become the greatest public speaker of the twentieth century.
Why should I choose these two old men, Roosevelt and Churchill, to inspire a young girl about to graduate from high school? Simply because they were both larger than life, and were both awesome examples of how a man – or a girl – can overcome the obstacles of life and become all that God intends.
I think it is fitting that two of these war leaders’ most famous sayings should be joined together to inspire and challenge you, Sarah Jane Waldrip. You have many advantages that other young people do not have. Your father, Dr. John S. Waldrip, is one of the finest Baptist preachers in America. Your mother Pam is a marvelous pastor’s wife. They have given you great love and protection. They have given you wonderful encouragement through the years of high school – and will continue to inspire you and help you as you go on to college. To whatever Christian advice and encouragement they give you, Sarah Waldrip, I would only add the words of those great men who saved Western civilization,
“You have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
“Never give up. Never, never, never.”
(END OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH)
You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."