It is that time of year again. A curious mixture of expectant hope and pronouncements of doom fill the air. The final exam schedule hovers over the campus like a foreboding alien saucer ready to pour its catastrophic hate over the dorms and halls. Last-minute papers and projects, ignored for so long, now become the Holy Grail, dramatizing baccalaureate life into a climax worthy of Shakespeare. In an attempt to survive the impending cataclysm, students hook up IVs of coffee and power drinks—as if sheer will power and chemicals alone will transform a wasted fifteen weeks into a successful semester.
And amidst all the chaos, repentant (or worse, unaware) young men and women casually enter the offices of professors—some of them for the first time—asking one of three questions.
What’s going to be on the final exam?
What do I need to do to pass?
Can I get a letter of recommendation?
And I answer:
Everything we’ve covered over the semester.
This last question floors me. What have you done in the last semester that would cause me to recommend you to an employer or to graduate school? What would I even include in this letter? Better yet, I should ask them, what do you—the student—think I should include?
My consternation at this scenario is the exception, not the norm. In fact, for most students who have asked me, I am happy to write a letter. Indeed, though the pearls are far fewer than the swine, the pearls shine far more brightly through the mud. But for those who absent-mindedly expect a letter as they expect their parents to pay for their schooling (ironically, they will be the ones who will never expect the future tax bill nor the inevitable colonoscopy), I simply shake my head and remind them of the dim, forthcoming nights in the dark corners of mom and dad’s basement. They chuckle and leave, completely unaware of the weight of their request and of the certainty my prophesy holds.
A letter of recommendation is one of the most valuable commodities we can possess. With this single document, one person vouches for someone else’s worth; they use their own name as surety for another. Their reputation becomes a witness, and is put at risk, in hopes someone else has a chance to succeed. When questioned about his apostleship, St Paul tells the church in Corinth that they, the people themselves, are his letter of recommendation (2 Cor. 3.1-2). Our reputation, he argues, derives from the people we have helped to transform. If anyone needs proof of my character, let him see the lives I’ve touched. In that same passage, Paul states that God makes us competent as ministers of a new covenant written on human hearts. And so, as we enter the lives of others, we should be inscribing the words of Christ’s covenant upon them with every conversation. And as we leave their lives, our words should remain in their memories as proof that at one time, through us, they felt the presence of God.
Here I end my last blog post of the school year. For me, this is another ending, as I complete the first phase of my career and move on from York College. In the fall, I will be taking a position in the English department at Faulkner University. My family and I are brimming with excitement as we write a new chapter, as we anticipate new adventures, as we are blessed by new lives. These kinds of milestones cause us all to look back, to look forward, to look around us with a heightened sense of awareness. We gaze ahead on the horizon and peer back to the wake we’ve etched in the waters. And as we predict great things ahead, we still remember those souls we’ve known and those we leave behind.
It has been difficult, I confess, leaving my students behind. Even the knuckleheaded swine (though I know I’ll probably find them anywhere). The educational journey is an intimate and transformative one, and I have been tremendously blessed to sail the seas with some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever encountered. Though I will cross new oceans with other bright-eyed and hungry learners, I will always remember these ones clearly. There was more we were to learn together, more we still needed to explore. But time is always our enemy. I must berth and find another vessel, and so I must somehow say all that needed to be said in our final moments.
To my former students, and to all my readers, I leave you with this advice.
Pursue excellence. Most people fall into two camps: either the obsessively driven or the apathetically ambivalent. But neither camp embodies excellence, which is a quality of commitment and character. No one accidentally stumbles upon greatness, contra Shakespeare, for if they lack excellence, even the best of circumstances thrust upon them will simply pass them by. When we pursue excellence, it permeates all aspects of our lives—and the same is true for when we lack it. We cannot be both dedicated employees and lousy husbands, or spiritually on fire Saturdays but church deadbeats on Sundays. We must choose passionate commitment for whatever task or responsibility the Lord gives us. Passion is the natural companion of excellence, and we must sail the seas with vigor and energy, or choose a different harbor.
Pray for wisdom. Life is a series of disappointments and triumphs, and I don’t know that I’ve yet learned how to handle either very well. Truth is the most valuable asset we have in our travels; more than an asset, it is the very essence of life itself. People peddle pretenders on Facebook and Twitter and call it #truth, but the reality is that Truth is hard-gained. Like excellence, it must be fought for. It does not conform to a political ideology, and it cannot be found in 140 characters. That kind of conventional wisdom is reductive, cliché—and most likely wrong. Make sure you seek wisdom in its right place, knowing that genuine truth comes from above.
Touch lives with goodness. Kindness can be hard to come by in this world, but develop an attitude of selflessness anyway. Help those who need help—without being asked. Come to learn that some of the greatest rewards are in serving other people. Smile, and mean it. Even to the people who will malign your name and reputation. There will always be people who will criticize you or accuse you of disloyalty or of just chasing dollars; their character is known by their fruits. But don’t let their evil deeds hinder you from generosity and goodness.
Cultivate beauty. Beauty is one of the most overlooked virtues in the modern era, perhaps because too much of what passes for beauty is just attractiveness. Almost all people, as creations of God, are attractive. Few people are genuinely beautiful, as beauty is an intangible but palpable radiance that shines out from within. To be beautiful, surround yourself with beauty. Associate with people of high character, influence those of low. Listen to classical music, go view art (both ancient and amateur), read great books. Acknowledge that wherever true beauty is found, it is a reflection of God’s glory.
Seek the Lord’s will. Everyday. In every circumstance. Keep in step with the Spirit, who is alive in prayer, in the word, and in every seasoned conversation. For whatever plans you may have, they will only remain plans if the Lord has not approved them. People will dare to tell you God’s will for your life—the very same people who don’t know his will for their own. Don’t begrudge them their good intentions, but keep your own walk with the Lord clear. Yet learn from the wise and mentor the young; God’s voice may be heard in the unexpected speech of unlikely speakers.
In all things, be people of virtue. Virtuous people, though not successful in all things, will always be successful. Be the kind of person for whom others would gladly write a letter.
May your lives write their own letter of recommendation.