“Life Together”

Address to the 2013 Hope College Opening Convocation
By John C Knapp, President and Professor
Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 2 p.m.
at the Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse


Good afternoon, classmates.  Let me say again how proud Kelly and I are to be honorary members of this year’s freshman class.  We look forward to learning with you and growing with you over the next four years.

Let me also welcome your families who have brought you to this point in your lives, as well as your faculty who will guide you and challenge you as you become the well-educated adults who will gather in four years’ time to celebrate the fulfillment of the hopes you and your families share on this day.

For just a few minutes I would like to offer you, the class of 2017, some thoughts on the opportunity that is now yours, to write the next, as-yet unwritten chapter of your lives.  In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, God encourages the people with these words:

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”[1]

Know that this is a promise for you too. Recognize that God is doing a new thing in your life – right here, right now. With your arrival, we at Hope College are reminded again of the joy of new beginnings.  All of us are eager to accompany you on a journey that promises to transform you in so many ways – intellectually, spiritually, physically, and socially. 

We dedicate ourselves to providing an environment and learning experiences that will allow you to flourish.  But we cannot do it all for you.  Much of the responsibility rests with you – individually and collectively.

You are already figuring out that your freshman year at Hope College will not be a next-level extension of your high school experience, no matter what sort of high school you attended.  You will find that you have more choices and more autonomy to make your own decisions.  You will find that your learning depends more than ever before on your ability to motivate yourself.  You will find that with more freedom comes more responsibility for deciding how, where and with whom to spend your time.  And you will find that it is up to you to decide whether to participate in chapel, attend Sunday worship services, or otherwise nurture your faith in God.  We at the college will provide ample guidance, but you are now adults who must make the important decisions about your own lives. 

You have learned this weekend that the college offers abundant opportunities and resources to help you to get the most value from your Hope College experience.  But again, it will be up to you to decide whether to take full advantage of these. 

Presumably the Hope Experience was a deciding factor between coming here and earning an online degree at home in your pajamas.  So . . . Will you walk across campus on a cold evening to hear that world-renowned guest speaker?  Will you take time to appreciate the dance or musical performances of your peers?  Will you take a shot at playing a varsity or intramural sport, or at least show up to cheer for your Hope athletic teams?  Will you get involved in a student organization where you can develop skills in leadership or service?  Will you develop a close relationship with one or more of your professors, each of whom stands ready to be your mentor both inside and outside the classroom? The invitation to a great Hope experience is yours, but in the end, you must decide to accept it.

In a similar vein, you, the class of 2017, will play a pivotal role in determining the quality of your life together for the next four years.  The Psalm read just a few moments ago, begins with the exclamation, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  I urge you to resolve in your hearts now to be known as the Hope College class that set a new standard for unity.  In the spirit of the “I am, we are” theme of this weekend’s orientation, I hope your class will say with pride, “We are 830 diverse students who live well together in love, friendship and mutual respect.” 

This is within your power, for you are just now getting to know one another.  Commit to yourselves to building genuine friendships with everyone you meet, especially those whose places of birth, race, ethnicity or life experiences may be different from your own.  In so doing, you will be better, Hope College will be better, and in the long run the world will be better.

As you consider what sort of community your class will be, I know I speak for your faculty when I say that Hope College aspires always to be a community of learners, a people who learn together, and often from each other, students and faculty alike. We devote ourselves to creating new knowledge and sharing it.  We strive for excellence in all that we do, and invite others to hold us accountable for doing our very best.  We value learning for the sake of learning, believing that the pursuit of greater knowledge brings us closer to truth and is essential to a life well lived. 

We believe that good scholarship is always done with integrity, for it violates all that we stand for to cut corners or to claim credit for work that is not our own.  We welcome civil discourse about issues on which we may not agree.  And we at Hope College add another dimension to the ideal of a dedicated community of learners, as our mission calls us to ask questions continuously about how Christian faith informs our teaching, learning and scholarship.

During the Second World War, a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer organized an underground seminary to train people for ministry in Nazi Germany.  As many of you know, he was ultimately arrested and executed for his activities in opposition to the Nazi regime.  His seminary was closed by the Gestapo, but he managed to write a little book based on the experience of this dedicated community of learners.  Its English translation is entitled Life Together.[2]

He speaks of the importance of community, of shared work and worship.  He describes a close-knit, mutually supportive group of learners.  But he follows this with a very important lesson: It is also good and necessary at times to be alone for personal reflection, contemplation, meditation and prayer.  He observes that oftentimes people seek the fellowship of community because they cannot stand to be alone.  At such times, he says, it is not really community they seek, but an escape from themselves.

Does it seem contradictory that I am encouraging you to make many friends and immerse yourselves in the life of the college, while in the next breath speaking of solitude?  Bonhoeffer argues that when individuals learn to be comfortable in a quiet time of reflection and prayer, it not only nourishes their spirit, it provides a firmer foundation for life together in community.

So I suggest you find a place or two here at Hope College where you can get away from the crowd, slow down and be alone with yourself and God. 

Granted, this is no easy thing in today’s fast-paced world of text messages and incessant distractions.  (You can now add my Tweets to that list!)  As we race though our days, many of us actually pride ourselves on our ability to multitask.  We are thoroughly postmodern and have learned to tolerate and even invite constant interruptions and more and more activity.

My friend, the philosopher and novelist Jacob Needleman, tells of a conversation with a physician known for revolutionary advances in patient care.  In response to a question about his plans for future achievements, the doctor responded, “You don’t understand.  I have no time!  I am pathologically busy.  It’s beyond anything I have ever imagined.  I can’t give anything the attention it needs. . . .  More and more things, good things, important things, keep coming to me.  Any one of them is worth the whole of my attention and needs my time.  But twenty of them? A hundred of them?  And it is the same with my staff.”

Wordsworth summed it up nicely: “The world is too much with us.”

I do not wish to minimize the difficulty of what I am proposing.  But your quality of life – individually and collectively – will be enriched to the extent each of you cultivates the spiritual disciplines of contemplation, prayer and individual communion with God.

It may help to remember that yours is not the first generation to face this challenge.  As the pace of life accelerated in the early Renaissance, scholars were much concerned about finding a balance between that which was called the Vida Activa – the life of work and present action – and the Vida Contemplativa – the life of reflection and contemplation about the things of greater value and lasting importance.  This is your challenge too.

The founding president of Hope College, Philip Phelps, had the idea of using an image of a tree as an emblem for the college.  The tree, as he conceived it, grew many branches of learning as its roots deepened in the soil of the Christian faith.  The image appeared on the college’s stationery in the 1860s, and we continue to use it on some ceremonial documents, including honorary degrees.

A tree may well be an apt emblem for our campus, as we just completed an inventory of 200 different trees representing some 40 species.  You can find their names, ages and locations on the web site.  I think anyone would agree that our wooded campus is much more attractive because of our diversity of trees with their natural beauty in so many sizes and shapes.  The same may be said of your freshman class.  God made each of you a unique individual.  Together you make our life on campus more beautiful.

Now there is one tree we will not find on our campus.  The giant Sequoia is the tallest tree in the world and can grow to heights of well over 300 feet.  Yet you will never see a lone Sequoia towering over a forest.  The surprising fact is that it has shallow roots that reach out to embrace and support the roots of other Sequoias.  Like all of us, it can stand tall only in the company of others who support its growth.

So classmates, accept the invitation to all that Hope College is offering you.  Resolve to love one another.  Remember to take time to be alone with God. 

It’s going to be a great year at Hope College.  My prayer is that we will reach out to embrace each other and grow tall together.