Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,--Hebrews 12:1

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Secret to Success

Tonight I had the privilege to give the baccalaureate address to the Vilonia High School class of 2011. I was humbled and honored that these great young men and women chose me to bid them farewell. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity they gave me to stand before Amanda's class one last time.

I was asked to post the text of the address by some who had trouble hearing because of the ventilation system. So the following is the speech I gave to my graduating seniors, my students and friends.

You are the Vilonia High School class of 2011, a class that will always occupy a special place in my heart, a class that I hope to never lose touch with. You and I, we’ve shared a lot. Many of you were students in my classes for each of these last three years. Some never sat in my class, but you’ve been to my house, you’ve eaten at my table, and even attended church with me and my family.

We’ve shared smiles and laughs when times were good. We’ve shared tears when they weren’t. Some of you, I comforted in your time of great loss. And recently, all of you comforted me and my family in our time of great loss. Over these past three years, I’ve grown to consider you more than students. You are my friends.

In a few days, you will celebrate your successful completion of 13 years in public school. A transformation will take place when you make a short walk across a small stage. This chapter of your life is coming to a close, and I am honored that you have chosen me to bid you farewell.

But the end of this chapter is not the end of your story, not by a long shot. Beyond this final page of your high school career is a new chapter, one not yet written. This chapter you’re completing was penned largely by others. While you had choices to make, you made them largely under the watchful eye, and sometimes heavy boot, of your parents and school authorities. But the author of this next chapter will be you, without the omnipresent authority looking over your shoulder and breathing down your neck.

Once you make that walk, once you accept that diploma, once you turn that tassel, once you throw your cap into the air, the responsibility for your future falls squarely on your shoulders.

Think about that for a minute. If you mess things up, your parents will no longer be responsible. They’ll no longer be under any obligation, legal or moral, to bail you out. Not to bail you out of jail, not to bail you out of debt, not to bail you out of whatever trouble you get yourselves into. The choices you make will get you into trouble or keep you out of trouble, lead to a life of happiness or to a life of despair. Choices YOU make will determine your future.

Honestly, it’s a little frightening.

Of course, you’ve all made choices that determined what you’ve accomplished these past 13 years. You chose to study or not to study, to pay attention or not to pay attention in class. You chose to obey the law, or to break it while out with your friends on Saturday nights. But all of these choices, for most of you, were made with your parents, your teachers, and school officials holding something over your heads if you chose wrong.

Some of you made all the right choices, and others have sometimes taken the wrong road. Some of you have learned a lot in your 13 years in public school, and others chose to blow school off and devote your time and energy to things other than studying and learning. Some of you haven’t gotten so much as a speeding ticket, and some of you have spent time behind bars.

Some who made all the right choices may find the road ahead easier. Those who didn’t choose well are likely to find the going more difficult. In fact, your parents, teachers, and others have likely formed their own opinions on whether you will succeed or fail. These expectations for you are based on choices you’ve made throughout your career as a student.

But whatever others are predicting for you, nothing is set in stone. I went back to college at the age of 35. I had a class with a kid who had been awarded the most valuable scholarship offered by Lyon College—a full ride worth about $30,000 per year at that time. He had the ability to be successful, but I never saw him in class. He sat in his room all day and played video games. By the end of his sophomore year, he flunked out and lost his scholarship. On the other side of that coin was a kid I had in class my first two years here. In Algebra II, he barely passed with a low D. In my Trig class the next year, it was nearly impossible to get him to work. But last year he came back to see me, and I was surprised to learn that he was working for HP in Conway. He was back in school, in their training program, and even admitted that he was using the math we studied in our classes.

Everyone expected the first to succeed and he failed. Most thought the second would fail and he was well on his path to success. Nothing is set in stone. From this point on, your decisions will determine your destiny. It’s an awesome responsibility you’re about to assume.

But that’s good news, because I know that each and every one of you CAN be successful. Not one of you is predestined to fail! Now that doesn’t mean you’ll all be doctors or lawyers or CEO’s of huge corporations. Because, success for each and every one of you will be defined differently. For some of you, success will mean great wealth. Others will be successful and waiting every week for that next paycheck just so you can pay your bills.

How is it that success can be defined so differently for some than for others? Good question. It took me a very long time to understand it myself. For years, I defined success by the number of dollars I made or banked. I chased the almighty dollar and was always focused on making more. Much of the time, if success for me had been defined by making money, I would have been successful. But I eventually learned that wasn’t the definition the word held for me.

It took me years to learn, but I finally figured out that my definition didn’t come from Webster, and it didn’t come from me. I was 38 years old when I began teaching, and for the first time started to understand what it meant for ME to be successful. It took me 38 years to learn that success, real success for me as an individual, was defined by God. I wasn’t truly successful until I was finally in God’s will, fulfilling His plan for me.

You see, no matter how much money I made, no matter how big my bank account was, I was never satisfied before. For several years I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year and made good money. But I was always looking for ways to make more. This lust for money was like a thirst that couldn’t be quenched, a hunger that couldn’t be satisfied. That’s because I was trying to work my plan, not God’s.

When I started teaching, I immediately began to feel more satisfied. Making less money than I’d made in many years didn’t bother me. It was an amazing feeling to have time to spend with my family. For the first time ever we were able to take trips to see the Four Corners, to Hannibal, MO, to travel the Western states, and to visit family out of state. These are times I’ll forever treasure now, more than I ever realized until this year. These were all things I’d missed out on, we’d never been able to do, when I searched for success using my plan and ignored God’s will for my life.

That’s what it takes to be successful, and that’s the message I want to send you off with as you embark on the next leg of your journey—to be successful, you must find and implement God’s plan for your life. I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cannot achieve real success if you don’t.

But knowing God’s will for your life isn’t always easy. In fact, I’ve heard many adults, long entrenched in their careers, wonder if they were living in God’s will. So I want to tell you what it took me four decades of living to learn.

We’ll start in Romans 12:2. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This verse tells exactly how to find and identify God’s will for your life. First, it’s imperative that you don’t let the world seduce you. If you want to be successful, you have to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Second, God doesn’t send you a letter with your orders. You have to seek and find His plan for your life. And third, His will for you is “good, pleasing, and perfect.” If you take this verse to heart, and set about finding God’s will and following His plan for your life, you can’t help but be successful. So let’s look at it, piece by piece.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

This couldn’t have been more critical when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans than it is today. Ten minutes spent watching the ABC Family channel or network television is enough to convince anyone who has ever heard a Bible story that the pattern of today’s world is anything but Biblical. Society works hard every day to separate you from God and His plan for your life. When I went to elementary school, the day started with a student reading a Bible verse over the intercom, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance every day. In high school, every football game started with a prayer over the PA system. Those days are gone now in the American public school, even in our school. Even our moment of silence to start the day makes us an anomaly in today’s world. Most schools are afraid to even give you a time you might use for prayer. These changes, from the time I was in school until now, are examples of how the world is working to separate us from God and His word.

To counter the effects of the world, to remain close to God, we must renew our minds. If you’re wondering, “How do we do that?” it’s right here in this book. Two thousand years ago God gave us the instructions on how to renew our minds, and they’re still with us today. The entire manual is contained in His Holy Bible, everything you need to know how to deal with any situation is right there. Psalm 1:1- 2 says, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.”

That’s how we renew our minds. We contemplate and reflect on God’s word as we go through life, day and night, all the time. Doing so transforms us, prepares us to find and do His will. Until your mind is transformed, you’re not ready to find His will for your life, let alone live out His plan. And until you are, until you do, true success will forever elude you.

“Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”

It would certainly be easier if God would just tell us what His will for us is. If we received a letter that said, “God’s will is that you go to that school and study this, then go to work there.” Wouldn’t that be easy? But it’s not that simple, and it does require work on our part. So I’m going to tell you at 18 what it took me 20 years longer to learn about finding God’s will, identifying His plan for your life.

I’ve come to realize that fulfilling God’s plan will most certainly cause three criteria to characterize your life. You will be challenged, you will be content, and you will convey the gospel to others around you.

Those of you who have had me in class have heard me say it a thousand times, and many of you who I haven’t had in class have heard it a few less than that, but anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy. That includes walking in God’s will. Second Corinthians 12:9 says, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” Trials will come, and your weakness will be exposed, whether you’re fulfilling God’s plan for your life or not. Even walking in God’s will, you will be challenged, and it won’t always be easy. But if you have transformed yourself with the renewing of your mind, in times of trouble you will call on Him and His grace will be sufficient for you.

This year, our school, our community, our family, has been dealt some severe blows. Not long ago, violent storms wreaked havoc on our little community. Several of you had homes destroyed, many suffered catastrophic loss of property, and a few tragically lost loved ones to one of nature’s most destructive forces. Though these blows knocked many of us to the ground, God’s grace picked us back up. These storms challenged Christians alongside non-Christians, those doing God’s will and those doing their own. So don’t think for a minute that doing God’s will, living His plan for you, is going to keep you from being challenged.

Working the cleanup after the storms, I saw a lot of people in tears as they worked to pick up the pieces of their shattered and scattered lives. Some were angry, and some in a state of shock or disbelief. But as I worked throughout this community during the days following the tornadoes, the most common expression I heard was, “I’m just glad we’re okay.”

But people whose entire material wealth is spread across an open field, we expect to see them angry and hurt, sad and resentful. We don’t expect to see them “glad” to be okay. Philippians 4:12 says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I promise you, when you find God’s will, when you are fulfilling His plan for your life, you will be content in whatever situation you find yourself.

This next part was the hardest, and took the longest for me to learn. In fact, I’m still working to get better at it. But, when you’re in God’s will, when you’re fulfilling His plan, you will spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean you have to be a preacher, it doesn’t mean you have to work at a church. It doesn’t mean you have to deliver a sermon in a crowded gym. I know nurses who share their faith with coworkers and patients. As a teacher, even I’ve found opportunities to share the gospel. If you’re where God wants you to be, regardless what earthly job He has you doing, there are going to be opportunities for you to tell others about Jesus.

Anything worthwhile isn’t going to come easy, and finding God’s will for your life, figuring out what His plan for you is, is worthwhile. You’ll try things thinking, “This is what God wants me to do.” Then it will be time to “test and approve” it to find out if it’s His plan or yours. When you find it, when you are finally in His will, living God’s plan for your life, you will be challenged, you will be content, and you will be conveying the gospel to others.

”his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

God’s will, His plan for your life, is “good, pleasing, and perfect.” God isn’t going to will you to be a bank robber. His plan isn’t for you to be a murderer. God’s plan is for you to be a good person. When you find your calling, you will be doing good deeds. You’ll be doing good for your community, your friends, your family, and yourself. First Timothy 6:18 says “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Here, Paul is training Timothy to teach others how to live as followers of Jesus, to live in God’s will. God’s plan for your life is good, without a doubt.

God’s will is also pleasing. When you’re fulfilling His plan, it will be pleasing: pleasing to you, pleasing to those around you, and, most importantly, pleasing to God.

Remember though, this doesn’t mean you’ll never endure hardship. Even following God’s plan, you’ll tread on rough and rocky trails. Times will be tough. But rather than wallowing in self-pity and despair when you get knocked down, you’ll find pleasure in God’s grace that gives you the strength to get back up. You’ll be the person who sees a glass half-full instead of half-empty. You’ll be the optimist instead of the pessimist. Walking in God’s will allows you to see the silver lining in the clouds, to eagerly await the rainbow while being drenched in a storm. God’s promise in Romans 8:28 is true and you’ll recognize that when you’re living His plan. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God’s plan will be pleasing to you.

But there’s more. When you’re living your life for Him, when you’ve answered His call, when you’re working in His plan, your neighbors will experience the same sort of pleasure. They’ll enjoy being around you. The old saying is so true, that misery loves company. Miserable people make others around them miserable. But the inverse is true also. Pleasant people are pleasing to those around them. A smile is contagious. If you’re happy, you’ll make others happy. Living God’s plan will be pleasing to you, and that will be pleasing to those you come in contact with you.

And last, but certainly not least, when you’re in God’s will, living His plan, you will be pleasing God. Romans 14:18 says, “because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God…” I can’t think of a better reason to seek His will, to live His plan, than to please Him. God, who cared so much about you and I that He sent His Son to die so that we might live, wants you to live a life that’s pleasing to Him.

When you’re implementing God’s plan, you’ll be pleasing yourself, your neighbors, and God.

And finally, God’s will for you, His plan for your life, is perfect. Perfect here means, it doesn’t get any better than this. You’ll never be happier than when you’re walking in God’s will, when you’re living His plan for your life. God’s plan for your life is perfect. There’s nothing better. Another job won’t make your life easier, more money won’t make you happier, and another place to live won’t give you better opportunities to share the Gospel.

Class of 2011, my students, my friends, each of you can achieve real success. I pray that every one of you will seek, that you will find, and that you will implement God’s plan for you, His good, pleasing, and perfect plan. He has one for each of you. Seek it, find it, live it, and you will be successful. Every single one of you.

Good luck my friends. God bless you all.

Class of 2011, thank you so much. You may never realize how much it meant to me to have this opportunity. I will forever be your teacher, and your friend.

If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.


  1. Very inspiring! Thanks for writing and sharing it.

  2. John,

    That has to be right up there with one of the best baccalaureate addresses I have ever read. Can't think of any better words you could have said to a group of graduates. I was blessed to read it. - Randi Mackey

  3. Thank you very much, both of you. I was blessed to have this opportunity to address these wonderful kids. :)

  4. John, I have come to enjoy reading alot of your posts on facebook and reading into the meaning of the scriptures a little deeper. But knowing you and having spent time with you I wouldn't have expected it from you. You seemed a very quiet and low key person. I believe the events which have lead you here have opened up a line of communication for those that need to turn their lives over to Jesus, and for those that have back slid to re-assert their faith, and take those steps back towards god. Thank you for posting this, and giving those that view it the opportunity to read something that is truly great. Julie and I, Love and Miss you all.

  5. Thank you Troy. You're quite right, I wouldn't have written these things before. Without a doubt, it's the events of late that have motivated me to study more, learn more, write more, and reach out more than ever before. The truth is, I never endured a blow like this before and it became evident to me that I could never survive it without Jesus. It has changed me. I hope God continues to use me until He calls me home to be with Him and Amanda. Love and miss you guys too.


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