Commencement Address Presents
Thoughts for Learning Beyond College
Posted May 4, 1998
HOLLAND -- Although their undergraduate years were
ending, commencement speaker Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger asked
the members of Hope College's Class of '98 to remember that
their education wasn't.
Bouma-Prediger, an associate professor of
religion, delivered the address "Can You Count?" during the
college's 133rd commencement exercises, held at Holland
Municipal Stadium on Sunday, May 3.
So that the largest possible number of family
members and well-wishers could be present, the event
proceeded at the outdoor location despite the day's
intermittent rain. Seating is more limited at the
alternate, indoor, Civic Center site.
Approximately 4,000 attended commencement. About
577 Hope seniors participated, including graduates from
throughout the United States and as far away as Australia,
Peru and South Africa.
Bouma-Prediger built his talk around Psalm 90:12,
which reads, "So teach us, O Lord, to count our days, that
we may gain a heart of wisdom." He examined the text's
emphasis on learning, setting priorities and gaining wisdom,
and ways he hoped that Hope had helped prepare the graduates
for the challenges each posed.
"This text begins with the presumption that we are
able and willing to learn," he said. "This prayer assumes
that we, in counting our days, are humble, are willing to
grow and change and learn--that we're eager to be taught."
"I pray that your Hope education has so shaped you
that you are open to the surprise and the shock of a God
whose Spirit blows where it wills," he said.
Regarding counting, Bouma-Prediger urged his
audience not to emphasize acclaim, and to reject the
philosophy of "Whoever dies with the most toys wins."
"The psalmist does not advise you to count your
awards. He prays that you and I be taught to count our
days," he said. "Note--not other peoples' days, but our
days. For our days are in fact finite, limited, numbered."
"We are--as previous verses in Psalm 90 forcibly
remind us--we are mortal. We are dust," Bouma-Prediger
said. "Such an honest acknowledgement prompts this
question: what really is important?"
"I pray that your time at Hope has sharpened your
focus not on possessions but on people, not on supremacy but
on service, not on that which moth and rust consume, but on
that which truly lasts," he said.
Wisdom, he noted, is something other than brain
power or accumulated knowledge. "Wisdom is, rather, a kind
of sound judgement, keen discernment, laced with an
insightful sense of what is good and right and true," he
"As one of you graduates put it recently in a
paper: 'I realize now how fragile and delicate life really
is, and that has helped me to appreciate it more. I also
know that there are many things I cannot take for granted
any more,'" Bouma-Prediger said. "Awareness, appreciation,
gratitude--such is the grammar of wisdom. Wisdom is, in
short, living a life in which your gifts meet the world's
"You have intelligence and learning and skill in
abundance, but do you strive, in the counting of your days,
for a heart of wisdom?," he asked. "I pray that your Hope
education has caused you to increase in wisdom."
Bouma-Prediger concluded with one more hope for
the graduates' Hope years, reciting "Southland of the Heart"
by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, which
recommends a gentle resting place as a refuge from life's
"I truly pray that there are memories and ideas
and people from your time at Hope that will in the future be
for you southlands of the heart," he said.
"And remember that nothing, nothing--not the wild-
eyed dogs of day to day snapping at your heels, not thoughts
you've tried to leave behind sniping from the dark, not the
nightmare creeping closer while your wheels are in the mud--
nothing can separate you from the haunting hounding grace of
God, that Southland of the Heart in whose loving presence we
are able to take our rest."
The Rev. Dr. Charles Van Engen was the
baccalaureate speaker earlier in the day, presenting "Having
Sung a Hymn, They Went Out." Van Engen is the 1997-98
president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in
America and a member of the faculty at Fuller Theological
Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. His daughter Anita was among
He based his theme on Matthew 26:30. The verse
concerns the Last Supper, noting that Jesus and the
disciples sang a hymn before leaving for the Mount of
Van Engen presented the verse as a model for
facing change. "Matthew's account can help us understand
the crucial place of the Bible, of God's revelation and of a
personal relationship with Jesus Christ to guide us across
the thresholds that lead us into the future," he said.
"The sentence marks a major transition in
Matthew's story of Jesus," Van Engen said. "It marks the
threshold between the events leading up to Christ's passion-
-and the passion sufferings themselves that mark the
beginning of the end times in Matthew."
"And Matthew tells us that singing takes us over
the threshold," he said. "Matthew speaks of a look backward
to the past, a celebration of the present and a call to
commitment toward the future."
Van Engen noted that the hymn that Jesus and the
disciples sang was likely the second part of the Hallel
Psalms: Psalms 115-118, one of which is Psalm 116, which
concerns God's deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt.
He asked the graduates to think of the challenges
they had faced during their time at Hope--such as finals,
performances, experiments, paintings and mathematical
proofs--and the way that they faced them.
"You may have gone through some really hard times
here at Hope," Van Engen said. "The Lord has brought you
through them! God has preserved your life. God has gifted
and prepared you for ministry and for a purpose."
Like Jesus, he noted, the graduates faced their
own Mount of Olives: in their case, the challenge of
transforming a world in need. "Our globe is itself on a
threshold--more like a precipice, the edge of a cliff," he
He cited the scarcity of food in the world, the
volume of refugees worldwide, religious persecution and the
explosive growth of cities as four examples of difficulties
Van Engen noted that during his time as president
of the RCA's General Synod, he has been impressed by the
large number of Hope graduates who play influential roles in
the RCA as well as in other denominations. "Hope College
graduates change the world," he said.
He also shared the story of a shepherd that he and
his wife once encountered while they were visiting a
protective dike along the North Sea in the Netherlands.
They watched the shepherd, playing a flute, leading his
flock of sheep from the dike safely across a busy highway
and to a corral beyond.
He challenged the graduates, newly prepared with
their Hope education, to assume leadership roles as well.
"You and I are on a threshold today," Van Engen
said. "The blessing and privilege of a Hope College
education makes you a leader."
"I challenge you to let God play the flute of your
life and change the world of the next century," Van Engen
said. "Having sung a hymn, let us go out and participate in
the mission of Jesus of transforming a lost and broken world
so loved by God."