To my colleagues, including Provost Short Thompson and Dean Johnson, as well as our entire team of talented and dedicated faculty and staff; to the family and friends gathered here; and most of all, to the incoming Class of 2023, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the opening of Hope College’s 158th academic year.
Today’s convocation ceremony marks the beginning of your next journey. For all of
you, this means you are about to begin something new. If you are a student, you are
about to embark on your college career. And if you are a family member, you are about
to say good-bye and send your student into an unknown.
Doing something new can be exciting but also intimidating and scary.
I know this firsthand, because I, too, am doing something new. On July 1st – just 7 weeks ago – I started a new job, which comes with this cool new outfit. After spending the last 17 years of my career on the East Coast, working in government and business, I now have the extraordinary privilege of returning home to Hope College – this time as president. As exciting as this is, it is also intimidating and scary. So, I empathize with what you’re feeling.
In fact, I actually know a lot about what you’re feeling, because twenty-one years ago I sat exactly where you sit today. In the fall of 1998, my parents drove me to Hope College in their blue minivan and dropped me off at Scott Hall.
I would like to tell you one simple story about something that happened to me that fall, which I think says so much about why I love Hope and how transformative this institution is.
Like most of you, I had a full course schedule as a new freshman. Not to brag, but I felt pretty good about how it went – except for one class: Calculus.
For some reason I really wrestled with that class… And that was a bit strange because in high school I had attended a specialized school for math and science… So it’s not like I was bad at math in general, but there was something about that class.
And I remember one specific piece of homework that I really struggled with. One specific math problem… that I wrestled with to the point where I thought “this must be a trick question – this problem isn’t solvable.”
In the end I turned in a piece of paper that didn’t even have an answer on it. My page was full of sweat and tears but no answer… All I had was a bunch of false starts and eraser smudges. And in a moment of defeat, because time had run out, I turned in the homework page without an answer.
A few days later, the professor handed it back… At the top it said “B+” and he had written something to the effect of “you showed your work and you were on the right track.”
That has stuck with me in a profound way. What I always say, when people ask me what I learned here at Hope, is that here I learned to learn. What that really means is this: I learned that when it comes to the biggest, hardest, most difficult questions… sometimes what matters - more than the answer itself - is showing your work. Showing that you wrestled with the question.
Hope College, as you know, is a Christian academic institution. I have thought a lot about what it means to be an academic institution as opposed to a church. To me, this means that we are first and foremost about inquiry… about the pursuit of truth… And I put the emphasis on the word pursuit.
Hope is a place where we can put all the big questions on the table. The biggest most important questions of all, like: Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? Is there a God? We can be a place that puts the questions on the table and wrestles with them together in an environment that is loving and caring.
This is distinct. A lot of research institutions are taking questions off the table because they think they know the answers. And similarly, at a lot of Christian colleges, maybe the questions are on the table, but the answers are pretty prescribed.
Hope can be different. Hope is different. We are a place that gives you the opportunity to wrestle through tough issues on the way to discovering truth. We are not afraid of this because we believe that the pursuit of truth and beauty in all its forms is in fact a pursuit of God. This, at its core, is the essence of hope! It’s the essence of Hope College, but it’s also the essence of true hope… The “living hope” that Jesus himself offers.
I’ve been a Christian my whole life… which means I’ve been around Christians my whole life.
And one thing I’ve observed is that many Christians have a tendency to simply memorize the right answers without doing the work of understanding them.
When I was a kid, I memorized Romans 8:28 in Sunday School… Romans 8:28 says, “God works all things together for good.”
But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized… You can’t just look at the world and all its brokenness and injustice and suffering and say, “I’ve got this figured out because I memorized Romans 8:28.”
It was not until I wrestled with it, that I understood the depth of the truth embedded in that verse.
Between 2006 and 2008, I worked at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. As
it happened, those years were, to put it mildly, a difficult time for our country,
encompassing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. I remember getting
regular reports about job losses in the U.S. economy. There were months when hundreds
of thousands of jobs were lost. I saw the enormity of the problem – the magnitude
of the injustice - and remember thinking, “Where’s the good in this? How is Romans
8:28 true here?”
On a more personal level, a few years ago my parents passed away, and I again was forced to wrestle with God’s truth... My dad was a Ph.D. chemist who worked at a pharmaceutical company his entire life. When he was in his mid-50s he was diagnosed with an uncommon form of blood cancer that his doctors said you can get from being exposed to rare chemicals. He died in 2013 at age 60… The same year he died, my mom’s breast cancer, which had been in remission following an earlier battle in life, came back. She passed away two-and-a-half years later at age 63. Within less than three years, two giant pillars in my life were taken out… And I said to God, “How in the world is Romans 8:28 true in this situation?”
That period of my life was incredibly painful. But also powerfully sacred. And it was through wrestling with those big questions and wrestling with God, that I got to know him and his truth on a much deeper level.
Life is a paradox. God is a paradox.
It’s too easy to simply memorize the right answer without doing the hard work of wrestling with the question. And what’s frightening is that you can have exactly the right answer, you can have the truth, but you didn’t get it in a fair way. You just skipped to the back of the book and memorized the answer key.
The Bible is clear that God wants us to wrestle with the hard questions.
In the Old Testament, there is a story of a guy named Job. Job loses everything – his wealth, his family and his health – and when this occurs, he peppers God with questions about why this has happened. Job’s friends appear and accuse Job of having done something wrong to deserve this. They tell him that he has offended God, and one of his friends even implies that whatever Job has done to offend God, he probably deserves even worse punishment than what he received.
What’s fascinating is that, for the most part, Job’s friends are right. They have the correct theological answers. As a part of fallen Creation, Job did deserve a far worse punishment than what he received. By the way, that is true for every single one of us. The mystery of the Bible is not that bad things happen to good people, but rather the real mystery of the gospel is how so much good has happened to a pretty corrupt group of people - us.
Job’s friends have the right answers. And yet at the end of the story, God condemns the friends and says he is pleased with Job, even though Job has the wrong answers. Why? Because Job took his questions and complaints directly to God, rather than just believing what someone else told him.
Having the right answer isn’t always enough, but how you got there always matters.
Hope is a place that is all about the process of wrestling with tough questions… Not Skipping straight to the answer. There’s a word for that in the classroom – skipping straight to the answer key - it’s called cheating!
What I learned at Hope is that life is a giant math problem… If your paper is not covered with crossed out stuff and eraser marks and false starts in your attempt to figure out God and figure out truth, then your relationship with God will be pretty shallow at best.
A relationship with God is not a matter of parroting back something you heard someone else say…
Do you think we can get to heaven and simply say “For God so loved the world that
he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have
eternal life”? God is not going to be tricked if you memorized the answer from your
friend on the way in the door.
You have to fight for it! You have to wrestle with it.
The world is full of difficult questions… Why is there suffering, injustice, poverty, racism?
None of those have easy, clean answers. But we at Hope will encourage you to wrestle with them, rather than take a shortcut.
When Jesus was in the desert, he was tempted three times. The essence of each temptation was the same: Take a short cut!
Resist the temptation to take a short cut. Spend time over the next four years wrestling with big questions and embrace the fact that Hope is a place that wants you to show your work.
Hope College was co-founded in the 1860s by Albertus Van Raalte, who referred to this institution as a “training school for eternity.”
We believe there is no better training for eternity than offering you the chance to wrestle with truth … to wrestle with God. In fact, the Hope College I know and love doesn’t just offer students that opportunity… it encourages it.
Because we are a place that believes in showing… your… work, not just skipping to
the end of the book.
…In this case, it literally is the end of the book. The hope that Jesus offers at the end of the Bible, happens to be the THE hope that the world desperately needs.
It’s also the hope that we as individuals desperately need.
But how you get that hope matters. God wants us to wrestle with it. He wants us to go directly to him with our questions and complaints – not just memorizing the answers he provides, but going to him directly and talking about your questions.
When you do so, you will actually get to know him. You will get to know God’s heart. You will come to understand on a much deeper level that the answers he provides are right. That he is good, that Romans 8:28 is true, and that the real hope offered at the end of the Bible is one day coming.
I know there is a lot to be anxious about in the newness of today.
If you’re a family member who is about to say good-bye, you are wondering how this day came so fast… Will your baby, who you held in your arms just 18 years ago, be OK as an independent adult?
And if you are a student gazing into the unknown that is ahead, there are so many questions and much to be anxious about.
I remember the anxiety I felt twenty-one years ago. Yet now, with the benefit of a couple decades of hindsight, I see that everything basically worked out OK.
I sometimes wish I could go back and relive my college years with the peace of knowing that it will all be OK. Remarkably, that’s essentially what God offers us. Not the chance to go back in time. But by getting to know him, we can let his promises about the future dictate the terms of the present.
This doesn’t mean that the present is not hard – and at times heart-breaking – but we can live joyfully, rejoicing indiscriminately, acting as if everything God has promised about the future is true. Because it is true.
The way you really get to know that is by taking your questions and complaints directly to the boss himself… not me, God!
Hope College is a place encourages you to show your work. We want you to spend the next four years wrestling with big questions on the way to discovering truth. In doing so, we then aim to send you out - into the world - filled with a deep understanding of God’s hope so that you can rush toward the messiest, most complicated problems you can find all around the globe and bring God’s hope there.
I am excited to embark on this journey with you.