Gov. Bill Haslam asked 275 Lee University graduates to think about what it means to graduate from a Christ-centered liberal arts school in a 20-minute commencement address at the Conn Center.
“We don’t live in a Christ-centered world. You look at the unspeakable tragedy that happened yesterday in Connecticut. But even beyond horrors like that, most of the people we are around, honoring Christ is the last thing they talk about,” he said. “There is a favorite passage of mine in Jeremiah.”
He told of the captivity of Israel taken into slavery in Babylon. Jeremiah was not taken captive and remained in Jerusalem.
“If I am writing letters to people who are held captive in a bad place, my advice would be to be quiet, keep your head down and we will try to get you out as quick as we can,” the governor said. “Jeremiah’s words were different.”
Jeremiah’s advice was to build a house and live in it. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and raise families, multiply there and do not decrease.
“Seek the welfare of the city to where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare,” Haslam read.
Following that, the governor made one suggestion and five strong recommendations on life. He suggested the new graduates consider public service at some point in their lives, because it matters when people who really do want to serve others seek public office on some level.
Haslam recommended striving for excellence, have humility, be a person of grace, be a person of truth and a person of faith. He told them to remember and celebrate what they have learned and achieved and realize “you all have the wonderful opportunity to serve the God of the universe.”
“You are serving the Lord, so whatever you do, do it with excellence,” he said.
The Bible, he continued, sometimes divides people by good and bad, but most often, it divides people between the humble and proud.
“Some people walk into a room and everything about them says ‘here I am.’ Other people walk into a room and everything about them says ‘there you are.’ I hope you are a ‘there you are’ person,” the governor said.
Haslam said everyone walks with a limp, has scars and blemishes and makes mistakes.
“To be a person of grace, to me, means you understand the Gospel,” he said. “We’re called to bear witness to the Truth.”
He recommended the graduates be people of faith both at home and in the public square.
“When we come out into the public square, there are other people who can test that faith. They say you shouldn’t bring that to your job or to your office or to whatever whenever. Faith doesn’t belong in the public square. We say truth is truth regardless of what environment we’re in,” he said. “We need to bring that truth and that faith as a gift and not as a club. We’re not supposed to leave our faith at home. I am not apologetic about bringing my faith into the public square. I understand we live in a pluralistic society, but I also understand I’m supposed to bring who I am and what I believe into everything I do.”
Christmas is a celebration of the God who came to serve. Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom from man.
“Every other god people serve comes to kill the bad guy in the end,” he said. “Here’s the amazing thing about the God we serve. He didn’t come to kill the bad guys. He came to let the bad guys kill him and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Prior to the governor’s commencement address, Lee University President Dr. Paul conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws to him.
Dr. Conn said the school does not award honorary doctorates freely or indiscriminately.
“We have awarded such a degree on 14 times in the past 25 years; only once before to a commencement speaker and never before to an elected government official,” Dr. Conn said.
He praised the governor for giving the past decade of his life to public service and bringing to his role a commitment to principle and shared values.
Two hundred seventy five was a record number for a December graduation.