Today is graduation day at Wheaton College, Illinois. The college is both my undergraduate alma mater and also where I now teach trombone to eager, gifted, and hard-working students. One of my students, Brendan, is graduating today. But instead of walking down the aisle of Edman Chapel with his classmates, hearing an inspiring commencement speech, praying and singing with faculty, administrators, families, and fellow students, and then having joyful celebrations at home with food, friends, and relatives, today’s graduation ceremony takes place in the form of a celebratory YouTube video followed by a Zoom meeting. I’ve just finished watching it. It was very nice; it was very joyful; it was very meaningful. But it was different. Still, I am confident that our graduates of 2020 will remember their graduation every bit as vividly as I remember mine. Each graduation is unique, and its memory becomes a part of us.
I’ve received a degree at three graduation ceremonies. I graduated from Jefferson Township High School in New Jersey, 1973. I think the ceremony was outside, on the school’s football field. I only have one photo from that day, a blurry snapshot of me with my mom and dad, taken in our backyard before we left home for the event, above. I received the senior class awards in music and English during the ceremony. People often say that music and math go together. Not for me. I can’t even do basic arithmetic much less mathematics. My body seems to reject math and science. Happily for me, my wife excels in those things so we are a good pair.
My graduation from Wheaton College in 1976 was very memorable. The weather was nice, my parents and my wife’s parents travelled to Wheaton from New Jersey for the festivities, and the next day, Pat and I headed back to New Jersey to start our new life in New York City. After the ceremony, she and I had a conversation with Wheaton College’s President, Hudson Armerding (photo above), one of the most godly men I have ever known and a person whom I still hold in the highest esteem.
Three years later, in 1979, I graduated from New York University. Thousands of students graduated that day so a single representative from each of NYU’s colleges received their degree on the platform on behalf of the other graduates. My strongest memory from that day in Washington Square Park was that I played in the NYU band, doing my part to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2 more times than I could count. And I also got paid to play in the band that day. $25, I think. Nice. I don’t have a photo from that day; nobody had yet thought of what we, today, call a “selfie.”
I last attended a graduation ceremony in 2016, my final year as Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. In that year, I had six students walk the aisle; every student walked and received their diploma. Seeing this photo (above) brings back so many memories. Look at those smiling faces. Timothy Hutchens (DMA), Paul Lynch (MM; he went on to receive his DMA at ASU a few years later), Kristie Steele (BME), David Willers (BME), Adam Dixon (MM; he also went on to receive his DMA at ASU a few years later), and Emmy Rozanski (DMA).
Today’s graduation ceremonies are different due to the coronavirus pandemic. But we should not for a second think that the accomplishments of our students who graduate today are any less for the fact that their commencement celebration comes across a computer monitor rather than in a football stadium, college arena, or chapel. Today, we celebrate their completion of a race, and their turning of a page to a new chapter. These are ones who will change the world, who will make a difference. We applaud them, celebrate them, and want to encourage them. And so we do. I have just finished watching the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music virtual graduation celebration. I laughed a little, cried a little, and was very grateful. I found it very meaningful to hear Dean Michael Wilder reflect on the last four years, see and hear reflections by graduates, and greetings from faculty. I don’t know how long it will stay up on YouTube but it’s there now. If you want to see a meaningful graduation celebration for the class of 2020, click HERE. Thank you, Wheaton College, for having the vision to put together something so joyful, emotional, and meaningful.
On June 10, 2006, I gave the commencement address at Caritas Academy of Arts and Sciences in Massachusetts. As I reviewed those comments, which appear HERE on my website, I realized that I could have written them yesterday.They are just as timely today as when I wrote them 14 years ago. I titled my comments, “Hold on to Hope.” Hope is very much a part of our thinking right now where the world is upside down. I thought I would share it again here on The Last Trombone. To graduates everywhere: congratulations! And please, hold on to hope.
HOLD ON TO HOPE
Graduation address by Douglas Yeo
Caritas Academy of Arts and Sciences, Hudson, Massachusetts
June 10, 2006
You may sit here wondering, “What can a trombone player from the Boston Symphony bring to a high school graduation ceremony? Especially if he doesn’t have a trombone in his hand?” That’s a good question. And it is my fervent prayer that you will have an answer to that question in a few minutes time.
I bring to each of you today a warning, a hope, and a task. On occasions such as this, speakers are called upon to offer inspiring words of wisdom to the graduates, a pat on the head to the parents, and encouragement to faculty. But honesty requires something more. I will not pray an Irish blessing over this graduation, as I know that the road will not always rise to meet you, and the wind will not always blow softly at your back. Life is hard. We live in a desperately fallen world, one in need of the redemption that comes only through Jesus Christ. It is a world that screams of its fallenness – natural disaster, war, famine, ethnic conflict, hatred. Discouragement is there for the picking, temptation is constantly knocking at your door. The burden of “doing the right thing” is often suffocating. You do not need platitudes from me. I come with something different. Something “other.”
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
Some of you know the context of these words, don’t you? They’re the opening of Dante’s Inferno, the first of the books of his Divine Comedy which includes Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Wandering from the straight path, we find ourselves in a dark wood. The dark wood may be something literal, such as a wrong turn when trying to get somewhere and you end up in a forest – or in Connecticut. But more often than that, do we not all end up in a metaphorical dark wood sometimes – the dark wood of an exam without adequate preparation, the dark wood of a confrontation with a friend that goes in a direction that causes hurt that seems irreparable, the darkwood of substance abuse, or the dark wood of any number of poor choices that we could make?
As we travel down the path, we can usually see what is going to happen; there is always that still small voice – or perhaps one that screams as in a hurricane – but we often ignore the words and the decibels. In too deep to get out but not in so far that we can’t wish we could turn around, we head straight into the mouth of disaster.
I’ve been there. We all have. And sometimes those moments can be pretty dark.
The dark moments are moments when Satan can grab us. And one of his most successful tactics is to cause us to give up hope – to think it’s impossible to get through the dark wood, to feel like there is no way out.
Alexander Pope reminds us that “Hope springs eternal.” And so it does. Right now, there are those of you who are hoping that I will get done speaking early so you can get on to your graduation party, or you hope to get back to the computer, the cellphone, your Palm or Treo so you can attend to the tyranny of the urgent.
But hope can be lost when we are overwhelmed. We can give up. While Philippians tells us:
I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12)
we sometimes nevertheless give up and lose hope, the thought of pressing on through a circumstance being too great a weight to bear.
In fact, perhaps the most depressing words that were ever penned are those above the entrance to Hell as found in Dante’s Inferno:
Abandon every hope, all you who enter.
Several years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Puccini’s masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is the story of a 15 year old Japanese girl from a poor family who marries an American Navy Lieutenant. The officer, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton has no intention of remaining faithful to the girl but she takes his vows and covenant at their word. Even after he abandons her for three years – after she has given birth to a child he has never seen – she holds onto hope. Even when all of her friends tell her that he is gone, never to come back, she still hopes. Only when he returns with his new, American wife does she realize that her hope was in vain. Having renounced her religion to marry the American, having lost her family as they in turn renounced her, having lost her virginity, having lost her freedom, having lost her husband, she agrees to his request to give her child to him. In what I find to be the most crushing moment of the opera, Butterfly cries,
O triste madre, triste madre,
Abbandonar mio filio.
“O sorrowful mother,
to abandon my child.”
In the end, she kills herself. For, as her Shinto tradition perversely reminds her, “To die with honor is better than to live with dishonor.”
This is heady stuff even for opera. But Butterfly’s hope is not unlike that which grips many in this world. While everything looks hopeless and overwhelming, people hold on to hope – even hope in something that offers no hope – because they have nothing else.
But our world tells them that there really is nothing to hope for. After all, a popular line of sporting equipment marketed a slogan that said simply:
Life is short, then you die.
That’s about as hopeless as one can get. Isaiah speaks of this as well when he recalls the comments of those nihilists in his time who said:
Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die. (Isa. 22:13).
You see, our society, like Isaiah’s, is obsessed with the here and now. We live in the FAST culture, the NOW culture, the IMMEDIATE culture. Hard work and self-denial give way to the quick fix and the easy get-around.
My trombone teacher while I was a student at Wheaton College, Edward Kleinhammer, played bass trombone in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 45 years. He was one of the most disciplined, hard working people I have ever known, and a man who knows and loves the Lord. Several years ago we wrote a book together with the pretentious title “Mastering the Trombone.” In his preface, he penned a sentence that either inspires dedication or causes one to abandon hope. He wrote:
World-class trombone players do not just happen. Their talents are forged in the dual furnaces of determination and diligence.
Not very popular words. Forge, furnace, determination, diligence. White hot heat, self-denial, hard work, discipline.
Why bother, if “tomorrow we die?”
Several years ago I was in Hong Kong and saw a young man with a t-shirt, on which was emblazoned the slogan:
Whoever dies with the most toys – still dies.
What’s the use, why not just “abandon all hope” and wait for the end to come? Look around, do we not all know people like this? Television, the Internet, pornography, the skateboard, video games – we know those who are amusing themselves to death, those who like Peter Pan resist at every turn the siren call to grow up and move ahead, who deny the call to fulfill their calling.
But, we who know Christ know that there is hope, a hope that transcends the collection of “toys,” a hope that makes all we do worthwhile. We have the great promise, told to us in Jeremiah 29:11
‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’
We know this – even in our darkest moments – and while it may take all of our will and way to keep Satan from deceiving us into believing that the promise is a lie, we DO know this. And we also know that by constantly keeping THE BOOK – God’s word – before us, we can resist the “flaming arrows of the evil one” as he tries to wrest our hope from us.
We know the promise of sticking with the task, and how true are the words of Hebrews:
Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. (Hebrews 10:35-36)
Press on, endure, “stick with it,” determination, diligence.
And, so, we have the warning: the world will try to strip you of your hope. Be on your guard and don’t believe the lie.
We have a hope, the only hope that is worth hoping in: hope in Jesus Christ, hope that there is a future, hope that no matter what this fallen world throws at us, that God is with us not in the twisted untruth of the bumper sticker, “God is my co-pilot” (co-pilot? co-pilot? No: God is not our co-pilot; He is our pilot) but rather, our prayer is to the truth of St. Patrick paraphrased by the great hymn write Cecil Alexander:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
And now, the task.
To the teachers of these graduates, I say: remember them. You have left a piece of yourself in each of these students. You nurtured, you lectured, you disciplined, you rejoiced, you felt sympathy, even pity, and at times exercised mercy. You shared your knowledge with them but you also learned from them. As much as you have influenced them, they have also found a way into your life. Perhaps someday they will even write to you and thank you for what you gave them. But remember this: a teacher without a student speaks only to desks and the chalkboard. These graduates have allowed you to fulfill your calling and exercise your gift of teaching. The Talmud says, “Whoever teaches a student teaches that student’s student – and so on until the end of man’s generations.” (Talmud Kedushin 30, a) You are in them. Remember them.
To friends of these graduates, I say: encourage them. They are, at this moment, poised on a precipice. The world is before them, they rejoice at this memorable accomplishment. They look ahead with fear and trembling, with hope and joy. They will know rapturous success and they will stumble. Will you, in the name of Christ, offer them your hand? Will you write them, call them, admonish them, rejoice with them, pray for them? Will you be the kind of friend that can tell them things they don’t want to hear? Will you be the kind of friend who weeps with them – tears of joy when they do well and tears of hurt when they fall? Can you offer encouragement when they need it, can you resist the temptation to act like you know everything and need to impart it to them? Will you be faithful to them, will you remember them in your prayers, and remind them that wherever they may be, there is one in another place who has their face in your eyes, their voice in your mind and their friendship in your heart. Encourage them.
To parents of these graduates, I say: love them. This is both a joyful and wrenching moment for you. Many years of parenting have brought you and your child to this moment in time. You have watched them grow from a helpless infant into a young adult. You have dried their tears, put band- aids on their skinned knees, taught them to ride a bicycle and drive a car. You have cheered their successes and agonized over their failings. They have made you proud and they have let you down. But in all of this, you have loved them. They are ready to fly – they will move away. As they are in transition, so you are in transition as well. You are beginning along the road that will lead to your new role as “parent of adult child.” Your son or daughter still needs your guiding hand but as the years go on, your role as their primary teacher will change significantly. With this milestone event you begin the process of letting them go. You knew this day would come many years ago when they were born, but like Sleeping Beauty’s parents, you hoped that all of the spinning wheels had been taken away lest a finger be pricked. But that is not the way God ordains families to be. You have trained up your child in God’s way. Today you begin the process – which will take a few more years – of releasing them. Your son or daughter will face many temptations. Every choice they make will not be a good one or the right one. But through anything and all things, give them your love. Let them know that no matter what may happen, no matter how low they may fall, no matter what condemnation the world brings upon them, no matter how great their success may be, that they have in you one who loves them. One who will, as you always have – even imperfectly – come alongside them and love them. Let them know that home is the one place on this fallen planet where love – unconditional, deep, abiding love – lives. Love them.
And, finally, to these graduates, I say: hold on to hope. Each of you entered this day full of anticipation. This milestone event is one for which you can be justifiably proud. You know the work it took to get here. But graduation from Caritas Academy is not a goal, it’s a way station. It’s the first punch on your ticket as you move on to accomplish what life has before you. You move from here to somewhere else – to college or the work force, to new relationships, and eventually to a new place to call “home.” This transition, like every step of life, will not be easy. While you may feel you are “boldly going where no man has gone before,” the truth is you’re leaving the comfort of what you know for the uncertainty of what you do not know. All of the confidence in the world will not keep boulders out of your path. You will be hurt, beaten down, discouraged. You will be tempted to give up hope. But look up! We who know Christ understand that He is the blessed hope. That the promises of God are true even when they feel empty. Our culture works hard to plant seeds of doubt in your mind. You are bombarded with advertising that seeks to convince you that you are dissatisfied with all you possess. Don’t believe the lie. You are a child of God, an heir to the throne. You have been gifted with abilities and talents which not only CAN but which WILL have an impact on the world around you. But you have to hold on to your hope. Keep the Book close to you; meditate on it day and night, write it on your forehead. Remember its promise:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
View the world about you with the proper perspective. William Blake wrote:
This life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.
Malcolm Muggeridge helps us understand this when he said that seeing THROUGH the eye “is to grasp the significance of what is seen, to see it in relation to the totality of God’s creation.” Seeing all before you through the eye of God – the eye which looks past the superficial to the truly important – will help you hold on to your hope, to remain true to your calling, and to persevere through trials and trouble.
And don’t forget THIS: you did not get here alone. Teachers, friends and parents walked with you in this journey called life. They will continue to do so. As you have been blessed by them, remember to bless others. Trust God, Honor God, Thank God, Humble yourself before God. Remember the words of Romans 12:10:
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
And may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God, uphold, guide, perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. (2 Corinthians 2:3-4, 1 Peter 5:10)