posted May 4, 2003

2003 Commencement Address

Thank you very much. And good afternoon to everyone.

President Bultman, Provost Boelkins, Associate Provost Gonzales, members of the Board of Trustees, friends, family, and most of all, graduates . . . greetings to you all. I am humbled and deeply grateful for this opportunity to represent the Hope College faculty in sharing some final thoughts at this moment of your testimonial, transition, and triumph.

In just a few moments, you, the members of the Hope College class of 2003 who since last August have been known as college seniors, will officially become Hope College graduates. Your presence here today is a testimonial to the commitment you made when you decided to attend not just any college, but Hope College. For four years you sought the challenge and met it. You confronted questions of life, science, ethics, and the cosmos, and doggedly pursued the answers. You grew intellectually and personally, each day becoming more certain of your plans and purposes.

Whether trudging through snow on early January mornings; studying in the library's quiet spaces late into the night; negotiating the peaks and valleys of debate, dissent, and discourse; or giving your last and final best on the field of sports competition, you have done all that was asked and required of you. You have performed with excellence and dignity, and given yourselves, family, and friends a testimonial of perseverance and success.

In your journey, you transitioned from high school graduates into collegians. You improved from better to best. You were occasionally wounded, and grew through the healing. You went from being members of a certain community, and claimed your identities as citizens of the world. The changes were many, each semester bringing with it new faces, new surprises, and new hurdles. You leaned forward into the hard blowing winds of change, traveling the distance one carefully placed and determined step at a time, reaching this location and moment today, strong, skilled, and more prepared for the lives you are about to live.

This convergence of time and event is a moment of triumph. Not everyone who started with you survived the journey. For some, circumstances and setbacks blocked their path. Goals so clear upon arrival were altered and they followed a different dream. But for those of you here, the multiple pressures of growing your faith, pursuing your studies, and striving for the highest achievement forged you all into diamonds. You daily poured your energy, creativity, and passion into a process that demanded more from you each and every day. Success was never guaranteed, but failure was not an option. You sit here today among the triumphant. Congratulations. Hope graduates of 2003, you have been challenged, taught, and fortified for a purpose. You will need every lesson, strength, and shred of wisdom to survive the world existing beyond this moment. In many ways, these are times unlike any ever seen in human history. But are they? Centuries ago, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes noted that, "there is nothing new under the sun." Added to that truth, the ancient scribe said: "There is an appointed time to everything . . . A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh . . . A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace."

Those words summing up the best and worst of our human journey are especially relevant today as we find ourselves in the midst of uncertainties that challenge our hopes; complexities that challenge our ingenuity; and disasters that challenge our resilience. The problems are many, the solutions far off, the hands of the willing few, and needs of the many great. This is a time for courage.

Hope graduates, as a nation we've faced hardship before. On June 16, 1858, as conflict's thunder rumbled just below the horizon, Abraham Lincoln expressed his countrymen's concerns about the impending crisis of civil war. An "irrepressible conflict" had been stalking the nation, and Lincoln was moved to lament that, "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it."

Today we must also determine where we are. We must understand the nature of what lies before us, the hazards of each situation, and the possibilities within ourselves. This is a time for courage, to find answers rather than merely ask questions; to see clearly when so many have lost - and are losing - their vision; to be bold instead of joining the chorus of the timid.

Fear. Loss. Hostility. Despair. Chaos. Hope graduates we've been there before. We've climbed our way out of some tough, tight places. We've been alone when those who could help wouldn't, and those who wanted to help weren't allowed. We've had friends who sneered at our dreams, and strangers who found it easy to believe in us. We need the courage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who on March 4, 1933, looked out across his depression devastated nation and declared: "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth? frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing the conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper."

Those words were true then, they're true now, and they'll be true in the future. Placing our faith in a God whose loving hands have created and control individual and national destinies, we need not fear. We need not lose hope. We need not lose our way. We need not question the outcome of victories already won. Your presence here today underscores the power of President John F. Kennedy's encouragement to us to, "observe today . . . a celebration of freedom - symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning - signifying renewal, as well as change."

Change is the constant that will always vary. This morning became this moment, and this moment is already fleeing the outstretched hands of tomorrow. The hours of life move quickly, rendering severest judgment upon the idle. There's no shortage of work to be done, and too many are content to watch others labor. Guard your time Hope graduates. For one day you shall pass this way and your steps will not be quick, and the shadows once unnoticed will be lengthening. This is your magnificent hour. Believe President Ronald Reagan who said we have "a right to dream heroic dreams." Be proud of your accomplishments, but let humility inform your actions as they did Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer who knew that, "Whether you have a Ph.D., D.D., or no, D., we're in this bag together. And whether you are from Morehouse or Nohouse, we're still in this bag together."

Some say that the time for heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer has passed. They say that such a concept is no longer consistent with today's reality. President Reagan would reply that, "Those who say . . . there are no heroes just don't know where to look. You can see heroes everyday going in and out of factory gates . . . You meet," them "across a counter . . . They are individuals . . . Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life."

At this moment, our national life is a matter of great concern and debate. Domestic hardships and foreign threats have exposed vulnerabilities once thought strong, and finally moved the indolent and unconcerned into action. This is the moment, Hope graduates, when fears are rising, hearts are shrinking, and present ills obscure memories of great accomplishments.

This is a time for courage, a time when you, the newest phalanx of reformers, trailblazers, gatekeepers, trendsetters, standard-bearers, healers, teachers, warriors, and peacemakers, must rush to the front of humanity and put your education, hearts, hands, and spirits to the task. Don't avoid the struggle for turmoil builds spiritual and emotional muscles; hardship cultivates the focused resolve of endurance; and overcoming delivers the priceless gift of wisdom. We must follow the example of magnificent abolitionist Frederick Douglass who knew that, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." He knew that, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are" people "who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without the thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Hope graduates today is May 4, 2003. This is a day of great promise but just as President Kennedy observed years ago, the world you are entering is "very different now." Two years ago, when graduation was still more far than near, we were an international giant of presumed invincibility. And then, on a horrific morning we crowded around radios and televisions, trying to comprehend if what we heard and saw could truly be happening. That "very different" world had changed again. Anxiety overflowed. Unanswered questions cluttered our days. The sledgehammer of war had battered down our front door.

It was a time for courage, something you all displayed. You kept going to class. You kept going to Chapel. You kept going to practice. You kept going to the library. You asked questions about what happened, and kept asking until you found answers. You assessed your government, you inventoried your culture, you found your voice, and started making your feelings known. Bravo, Hope graduates. Bravo!

The world needs to know that you're coming. So like President Kennedy, I say to you and the world: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." You are that generation, and we willingly, gladly, and with confidence pass to you that torch. But in that passing, let us remember those generations who now stare down upon us from the mists of eternity.

Let us remember the women of Seneca Falls in 1848, struggling for the vote; the 186,000 black Union soldiers who couldn't afford to lose the fight; the Native American elders who nevertheless taught the children their ways; the sweat of Chinese laborers who built a nation's railroads; the farm boys, pool hustlers, and immigrant children who slew the Nazi beast; the tortured bodies of lynched blacks whose loss of life became our Civil Rights gain; the Vietnam vets who did their duty for a sadly ungrateful nation; and the thousands buried beneath the World Trade Center who reminded us again that freedom has never been free.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, and prepare ours to bear the weight of our children. We are resolved, and we are clear of mind. And lest there should be any doubt of our intent to show mercy, strength, compassion, and determination, recall the words of John F. Kennedy who said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

The job of achieving that end begins now. Congratulations you wonderful Hope College graduates and . . . Godspeed!