June 10, 2017
Phil Johnson, Ph.D.
By now, most high school and college graduation exercises are complete and new groups of graduates are preparing to enter college, the military or the work force. They are entering a world that is vastly different than the world I entered following my graduation. Current high school graduates have no memory of the events of 9/11 in 2001 that have vastly shaped the world we now live in.
I had the honor of speaking at two graduations this spring. The two schools are schools with whom I have a beautiful global history, as hundreds of their students have been accepted in Global Next’s Leadership program and have traveled the world with me. I thought I would share with you some of the highlights of what I shared with these graduates in my speech.
After the obligatory introductions and nods to our shared pasts, memories and values, I shared just three basic truths that I wanted them to remember – maybe you’ll find that these statements hold some truth and encouragement for you as well – no matter your stage of life.
“ My organization, Global Next focuses on helping people live better stories – through our research, through our study abroad programs, through our outreach to conflict countries – I have lived stories, heard other people’s stories and shared your stories. So tonight it’s a pleasure to be here and I am humbled to share a few insights – or truths, in the few minutes we’ll share tonight: Here is my first encouragement to you:
1: If you want to be extraordinary – Have a bias towards action. Lean in to doing something and do not wait for life to gently unfold for you. No matter what you’ve heard, this world is still full of opportunities for those who know how to recognize them. History (and the Internet) is filled with examples of young men and women who did not let the world dictate what they could and could not accomplish.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first symphony at 8.
- Romanian gymnast Nadia Comāneci achieved Olympic victory at age 14.
- Marquis de Lafayette – Came to America and helped win the American Revolutionary War at the age of 19.
- Joan of Arc turned a war around at age 17.
- Alexander the Great conquered countries at 18.
- 21-year-old college dropout Steve Jobs, co-founded Apple Computer. (I’m not encouraging dropping out of school, but if you can create something better than an iPhone, you will hear no complaints from me…)
- 12-year-old filmmaker Steven Spielberg, got his first movie camera and spent hours writing scripts, drawing storyboards and making movies.
- By 18 years of age, Billy the Kid had been charged with twelve murders. (Ok, that’s not such a great example or career path – but at least he was doing something with his time…)
- But also remember this: No one has a guarantee of time. No one has the luxury of just waiting – time is a non-renewable resource. Anne Frank wrote the final entry in her diary at just age 15.
Even at your young age, the clock is ticking and people who change the world don’t wait for permission to change it – they just move forward, adjusting as necessary.
2: Value your freedom. Freedom is a commodity that we have taken for granted, but trust me, freedom is fragile and under siege. Free speech is being replaced by political correctness and the specter of “hate speech.” And eventually – we could live in a world where sharing your faith or expressing your Christian values might be viewed as intolerant and unacceptable. Value and fight for your freedom.
In October of 2015 I met with Kim Cheol-woong, in Seoul, Korea. Mr. Kim is a North Korean defector with a stirring story.
From a powerful family and recognized at a young age as a gifted pianist, he was trained and then given the opportunity to study at conservatories in Moscow – where he heard and learned a beautiful love song that he wanted to play for his girlfriend when he got back to North Korea – before be proposed to her.
But North Korea is one of those rare places where playing music in one’s own home can be dangerous. Someone passing by overheard Cheol-wooon playing the Western love song and filed a report to the State Security Department.
“I didn’t realize that playing a banned song could be such a dangerous thing,” says Cheol-woong. He soon found out that it would change his life.
At his interrogation session, which lated for hours, he was asked: ”Where did you hear that music first? How did you feel when you heard that music? Who have you played this song to?”
Cheol-woong explained he had heard the tune while studying in Russia. He had liked the piece and remembered it, so he could play it for his girlfriend when he returned to North Korea. Because he was from a fairly powerful family, he ONLY had to fill out 10 pages of an apology and a promise not to play the forbidden song again.
But that was enough for him. Within a few days, he made his decision to leave. He took $2000 from his mother’s purse and headed to the border with China. He offered a bribe to soldiers, crossed the river and was pointed to a small village where this once well-respected musician now had to work on a farm and as a logger.
Eventually someone told him about a small church nearby – they told him it had a piano. When he saw that piano – after a year of not seeing or playing one, he cried. It was the instrument of his soul. He began playing the piano for the church and eventually heard the Gospel and became a follower of Jesus. A year later, with a forged passport and with the help of a Christian missionary, he was able to get to South Korea.
He now works for a university and with youth orchestras made up of North Korean refugees. He left behind everything and everyone – and when I asked him if it was worth it, he said, “I miss my family, and I miss my childhood – but yes – it was worth it – freedom is always worth it – freedom is everything.”
Value your freedom of speech, your freedom to have your own viewpoint, your freedom to express worship and your freedom to write and share your ideas. It’s worth fighting for…it’s essential to fight for…and I believe in your lifetime, it will become necessary to fight for this freedom, even in this great country of ours.
My final encouragement to you tonight is this:
3: Be light in this world – Be an ambassador for Christ. According to my trusted dictionary on the Internet, an ambassador is a “representative or promoter of a specified activity. A champion, supporter, backer or booster.” In other words, it’s our job to represent the Savior of the world and stop living for ourselves — which often stand in sharp contrast to our natural selfishness.
I’ve seen a lot in my travels and in my interviews around the world. I’ve met with my share of terrorists from Damascus to Sana’a. I’ve been to the front lines where the Peshmerga forces were holding off ISIS in Iraq. I’ve sat in Yemen and interviewed Osama bin Laden’s chief body guard. So here’s what I can tell you – there is never a time when I see the need for a Redeemer more clearly than when starring into the eyes of evil. You must go from here – from your safe places of family and school – and be light in this world. You must be Jesus to others whenever possible.
On one of my recent visits to Iraq, I met with a priest, named Father Douglas Bazi. He is a man who had his church in Baghdad bombed and has endured being kidnapped and tortured by terrorists. Today he is helping Christian refugees in Erbil, Iraq who had to flee Mosul when ISIS took over.
When I met him in Erbil, He told me that when ISIS took over Mosul, they gave the Christians several choices: To convert, to pay a tax of $8,000 per month, to be killed or to leave. They left, but left without anything. And Father Bazi took them in – first in his church and then in the refugee center he built. He was a light to them – he was being an Ambassador – a representative of Christ. They lost all of their worldly possessions, but they did not lose their faith. They did not lose hope.
As I interviewed this Chaldean priest, he told me that Christians had been in this area of the world for 2000 years – from the time when Christianity had begun. But now they were being systematically slaughtered. Traditionally, he told me, believers had been the best educated people in the region and a buffer between the Shiite and Sunni forces. “But soon,” he says, “The light of Christians will flicker for one last time in this area and then go out. Then there will be so much darkness that those who are left – the forces of Assad, ISIS, Russia and Iranian militia – will not be able to recognize each other.”
But we’re not quite there yet… there’s enough light left – enough for us to see our responsibility to this world – to construct a story with our lives that brings context to the madness that sometimes surrounds us.
Yes, there are challenges out there, outside these walls where you’ve made so many memories and friendships. But I can’t think of a more exciting time in which to live – or a time of more opportunity to reach out and be salt and light in a world that needs the God colors and God flavors at a time when things are shifting so dramatically.
You may find being an ambassador of Christ a bit uncomfortable. When engaging with this world you will have moments when you will feel confused and when things seem unclear. But that’s OK. Matthew chapter 5 calls it “being poor in spirit” or – “being at the end of your rope.” And that’s the beginning – the beginning of when and where God can use you. When there’s LESS of YOU, there’s ALWAYS more of GOD. It’s where mercy begins and where hope holds out its hand.
Go, I challenge you – move forward – never backwards – do not hide from challenges – do not doubt the God who gave us his Son to redeem us. Live a story that will be interesting – and yes, if you must, be the hero of your own story – but be the kind of hero that saves others.
Congratulations, Graduating Class of 2017!