2024 Hill Country Christian School of Austin Commencement Address

2024 Hill Country Christian School of Austin Commencement Address🔗

Christopher Felleisen

25 May 2024

Chat, is this real?

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed faculty, proud parents, and of course, the remarkable graduating class of 2024 it is with great honor that I stand before you today to celebrate this momentous occasion. We mark the culmination of years of hard work and dedication and the moment we cast off from the safe shores of Hill Country to set sail into the next chapter of our lives.

As we reflect on the myriad of experiences that have defined your high school years, let us not forget the invaluable lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom. From moments of triumph to instances of adversity, each encounter has imparted wisdom that will guide us as we navigate the uncharted waters that lie ahead.

Yet, amidst the anticipation of what lies beyond, let us also take a moment to express our heartfelt gratitude to those who have supported us along this journey. To our families, whose unwavering love and encouragement have been our steadfast anchor, to our teachers and mentors, whose dedication and guidance have illuminated our path, and to our friends, whose companionship has enriched our lives – we owe you an ocean of gratitude.

Wow, Class of 2024, my good fellows, it’s so hard to believe this moment is here. In case no one has asked you this yet today, are you guys feeling okay?

I recently read that a commencement address shouldn’t exceed the time it takes for the Valedictorian to realize she’s smarter than the speaker. So, I’ll aim to keep this brief. Congratulations!

I met most of you five years ago when I started at Hill Country. And if I may say so, you guys were pretty weird. Seriously, I had to give grades for homeroom to get you to sit still; dress-code the boys for their short shorts; and entertain you with pineapple pen. Since you’ve had a strange obsession with scibidy; cold-called your crush’s dad to invite him on a fishing trip; and showed up unannounced to Dr. Cavanaugh’s house for game night. Thankfully, many of you have come a long way since then: China, Virginia, Arkansas, New Jersey, New Mexico ...

Joking aside, my relationship with each one of you has been transformational. We’ve listened to each other’s trials and tribulations in unofficial counseling sessions and encouraged one another in faith, academics, and athletics. We’ve planned joint birthday parties, celebrated incredible victories, and mourned devastating losses. We’ve prayed together and for each other.

We compared our analyses of literature, and we reflected deeply on some of the pearls of wisdom we gleaned from biographies, epics, and novels. Things like:
  • Invest early and often.

  • Precious things are without value to those who cannot prize them.

  • Sacrifice your life rather than your word.

  • Choose to do hard things, and then do them well.

We played soccer together where you made me feel like a hero. I tried coaching football, where, as eighth graders, you humbled and awed me with your eagerness to mentor underclassmen - athletically and spiritually. Something you continue to do until this day. We ran Hell Hill repeats, where we compared our experiences of moving across the country. And once I even beat Aaron in the 100-meter dash (in my dreams).

We spent weekends, winter breaks, and late nights developing custom, innovative, and inspiring solutions to engineering design challenges. I watched you sing and perform in places from the AZ to the DR and HCL. We rode roller coasters for Physics and compared homework assignments when I tried to hang in Calculus BC – in the end, we all just checked our answers with Cody.

In other ways, our relationship has been transactional:
  • I taught you math, programming, and thesis; you made me a subreddit and a hippie-themed Pinterest board for my alter-ego.

  • I assigned you Spirit Animals (meow) and homework; you made me listen to your podcasts

  • I asked you educational math-y questions like what’s the sigma, and you explained the correct pronunciation of You-ler – it’s Oy-ler

  • I grew a man-bun, Gabe grew a man beard; and

  • finally, I gave the best life advice, and you taught me about mogging. (mew)

This journey has been an adventure. In fact, in the past five years, there is no group of people I’ve spent more time with outside of my family than you. Trust me. I’ve done the math. I feel like I have gotten to know you pretty well which is why I can cook you in Avalon and pickleball. And it’s why I can confidently say that you are a truly remarkable and accomplished Senior Class.

You created moving works of art. You wrote, sang, and recorded mesmerizing songs about vampires, “hurt, hurt, and hurt.” Who are those songs about anyway? You competed at the highest levels, reaching incredible heights in softball, track, football, basketball, tennis, robotics, and DECA. You set school records and then broke them. And since you’ve also always been kind enough to laugh at my Brazilian dad jokes even when they were not funny, I have no doubt that you are ready for whatever the next stage of life throws at you.

Consequently, I wondered for a long time what I could possibly say to such an accomplished group. I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say. To my shame, I became so desperate that I unironically considered using ChatGPT. As a Geometry teacher, that’s where I draw the line.

In selecting me as your speaker today, I can only conclude that you, Class of 2024, have wholeheartedly embraced the adage “it’s important to learn from your mistakes ... but it’s better to learn from someone else’s.”

Having grown older but hardly any wiser and having recently surpassed the 20th anniversary of my own high school graduation, I often wonder how I would have lived differently if I understood at your age the principles that define me now.

Years ago, as I sat in your seat, my worldview was very different than it is today, and therefore my understanding of success was also very different. Like some of you, I thought success meant becoming rich and popular. But money and fame do not equate to accomplishment and character.

Like others of you, I hoped and believed with enough prayer, life would be easy and comfortable. But as most of you understand, the world our hearts desire isn’t always the same as the one God made for us. This was a painful lesson for me to learn, but in it, I experienced the goodness of God in ways far greater than I could ever have imagined or hoped for.

Now, I realize that the miracles of the Gospel are not just Jesus’ stats or even a hopeful wishlist; miracles -then and now- are glimpses of how God designed the world to be:
  • Healing blindness? He created us to see the Truth.

  • Healing illness? He makes us whole.

  • Feeding 5,000? He satisfies our physical and spiritual hunger.

  • Resurrection? He desires us to live fully with Him.

With this in mind, I want to take my remaining time to share some observations about one of my favorite passages of scripture: Peter walking on water. When we ponder what God intends to reveal through this miracle it is truly quite peculiar. Nevertheless, this story includes my final life principle, warning, and promise to you as Hill Country students.

As the scene opens, Peter is sitting in a boat with the other disciples when he sees Jesus approaching on the water. Peter calls out to Jesus, who beckons to him. Peter responds by stepping out of the boat and joining Jesus. In his faith, Peter experiences a miracle. He walks on water with our Lord. Peter experiences the fullness of life that Jesus brings. You are called to do the same. Defer to Christ. Trust him, and when He calls, get out of the boat.

At other schools, speakers might tell students one must take risks to get what one wants. They might advise you to ask the girl out even if her boyfriend is a D1 linebacker, travel to Spain to run with the bulls, or start a business and become your own boss. Taylor Swift, or maybe Mrs. Sorley - I can’t tell the difference at this point - says it like this: “Do the extra credit even if you’re graded on a curve.”

There is some truth to that thinking, but the principle I’d like to leave you with is more robust: to live fully, risk everything for Jesus. Follow Him with radical authenticity and courage regardless of the perceived cost. Tell the truth even when it’s scary; give without sparing; and love others unconditionally. Use your status and influence to speak up for those who have no voice; use your strength to help the weak; and use your faith to lead the faithless. In doing so, like Peter, you will experience the abundant life that Jesus has promised.

Getting out of the boat is terrifying and uncomfortable. The price of getting out of the boat is genuine sacrifice and unequivocal trust. The good news is that many of you already know what these risks look like; you are already living out this principle by
  • Testing cups of urine so Haitians in the DR receive health care;

  • Praying that your classmate will abandon Buddha and embrace Jesus;

  • Developing robots during competition season to help friends with Duchennes, and

  • Delivering thoughtful, Christianese-free sermons for the student body in chapel.

Your future will be full of opportunities to step out for God, but as you’ll quickly discover most adults are paralyzed by fear. The more ‘successful’ one becomes, the higher the stakes begin to feel- getting out of the boat could cost your reputation, your riches, or even your relationships with family and friends. Indeed, when you risk getting out of the boat, you might get wet.

I hope you remain undeterred. I hope you do not retreat into the comfort of the boat. I hope you get out of the boat, even knowing you might sink.

Peter even sinks, despite being in the company of Jesus. Why? What changes for Peter? In a word, his perspective. This is my warning: fear, doubt, and uncertainty are inevitable; maintaining an eternal perspective is everything. CS Lewis says it like this: “What we see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

When you’re walking on waves with Jesus, the current feels the strongest. The waves roar the loudest when they’re at your feet. BrainRot, InstaBook, and SnapTube will scream for your attention. Brawlstars, Clash of Clans, Trash Royale, and Fork-knife will devour your time. The opinions of others – friends, enemies, and social media alike – will censor you. Adversity will tell you to quit. The world’s values will tell you to get back into the boat and enjoy the comfort and safety of the meaningless rhythm of the surf.

Given the chance, these distractions will steal your life and erode your sense of urgency; eventually, they will enslave you. They will make you fear defeat and encourage you to pursue meaningless, pyrrhic victories. These waves will argue that vice is virtue and virtue is vice. They will appeal to humanity to drown your voice with shame and guilt. And even as you walk with the Truth, they will try to convince you there is no truth.

Don’t let pride fool you into thinking you’re better than Peter; whether you fall out of the boat or sink on your own, failure is part of every one of us. “Considering your aforementioned accomplishments, many of you might not be well acquainted with failure. But before you cross this stage, you should know that failure - along with its pain - is unavoidable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you failed by default.”

Sometimes, it may take a thousand fails, and that’s okay. You may never truly know yourself, and you may never fully understand Christ until you have been humbled, until you have risked and lost everything to get out of the boat. It is unavoidable, but we can prepare for it.

You may forget the specifics of lessons at Hill Country, but the purpose of our classes was never just to impart content-specific knowledge. It was to help you build a liturgy of learning, one that you can use to preserve your perspective wherever you go, to see God, even in a world that hides Him.

Some say the only thing worse than a man with a hard heart is one with a soft head. Never stop learning. Your ability to read and think critically is essential for keeping your focus on the Truth. Continuously seek our Creator in creation: experiment with math and science to reveal and describe the order of creation; delve into as much literature as you can to practice empathy and remind yourself of our need for a savior; and finally, know the past to anticipate the future. Exercising these skills will help you maintain an eternal perspective; in modern vernacular, they will keep you dialed in on Jesus.

This is where we come full circle. Life is complicated. Sometimes, it is beyond your control. No matter where it takes you, Christ remains with you. He’s always ready to lift you out of the tide, no matter how deep you think you’ve sunk. Behind even the darkest clouds, the sun is still shining.

If Peter’s lack of faith - if our failure - were the end of this story, ours would be a terrible, joyless existence. This would be an awful, empty narrative for a graduation speech. So, understand this: the miracle of this story isn’t just that Peter walked on water – the miracle of this story is that Jesus is walking on Earth.

Jesus rescues Peter and likewise, He rescues you. He won’t let you sink. He won’t let you drown. The promise of this story is that you are freed from failure when you risk everything for Christ. In Him, your weakness is made strong. The worst possible outcomes to risk and doubt – imagine Peter’s joy of walking on water and the shame of sinking – are still opportunities to experience God’s grace in a new, fuller way. Such knowledge is often painfully won. Forgiveness should hurt, but the price has already been paid.

One last thing, As Augustine notes, “[your] heart will remain restless until it rests in [God].” Joy lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, titles, or the number of letters that follow your name are good, but they’re not your identity. Your identity is in your Creator. Never forget you are fearfully, wonderfully, and intentionally made. The God of the universe loves you and decided you are worth saving.

Class of 2024, I also love you. and if I had favorites, you would be my favorite senior class graduating this year. I will low-key miss you. This is the end of your time here, but it’s the beginning of a new adventure. We have equipped you and you are prepared. As you bid farewell to the familiar comforts of the past and set sail for the boundless horizons of the future, carry with you the lessons learned, the memories cherished, and the bonds forged here at Hill Country.

I hope you dare to make hard choices, and that you dare to stand in confidence on the precipice of failure and to trust God with the results. I hope you maintain an eternal perspective, recognize God in your learning, and that the circumstances of your life, both good and bad, continually drive you back into the arms of Jesus.

When the moment comes, be brave. Participate in the divine life. It is worth it.

Class of 2024, congratulations, your moment is here; get out of the boat.