As if on cue, the thick clouds lingering from the previous night’s rain departed and the sun began to shine. It was an apt transition at the beginning of Hope College’s 11 a.m. Commencement ceremony for the graduating Class of ’21 on Sunday, May 16, a visual complement to the day’s message of hope for a brighter future — a message also embodied in the college’s motto: “Spera in Deo” (“Hope in God”).
The ceremony was held outdoors at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium as it always is when the weather cooperates, but because of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic there were some obvious differences. There was no processional, with the graduates already seated on the field while “Pomp and Circumstance” played and the jumbo-sized screen in the end zone showed photographs from their four years at the college. To facilitate physical distancing, the members of the class were spaced six feet apart, attendance by friends and family was limited, and Hope split the class in half and held two ceremonies (at 11 a.m. and 3 pm.) instead of one for the approximately 650 participating graduates.
“This year our pomp is occurring under a slightly different set of circumstances,” quipped Hope President Matthew A. Scogin during his introductory remarks, eliciting laughter from the gathered crowd.
It was, nevertheless, a welcome return to a tradition that had missed a year during a year that had seen much missed. Because of the pandemic and the corresponding statewide restrictions against large gatherings, Hope hadn’t been able to hold Commencement in 2020 after having previously spent the last weeks of the Spring 2020 semester presenting classes remotely. The subsequent 2020-21 school year had seen multiple adjustments due to the pandemic, including, among others: a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote classes; cancelation of off-campus study, the fall athletic season and other activities; limited attendance at campus events; and requirements regarding mask wearing and physical distancing — all in the larger context of the pandemic’s significant local, regional, national and global impact.
“Because of how all of you have endured through these circumstances, we have a lot to celebrate today,” Scogin said. “The world has thrown a lot at you during your time in college, and if you can survive this you can do anything. To you I have one thing to say: You are going to crush it.”
“’Crush it.’ That’s a term we use in higher education,” he joked. “It means achieving advanced proficiency, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do. Because through the circumstances you’ve been dealt, you have persevered with determination, with strength and with hope — and that’s really what you’re receiving today after this journey that you’ve been on.”
“And the way the Bible talks about hope, it’s not a wish, it’s not a weak desire,” Scogin said. “Rather, it’s a confidence that something good is going to happen even when the circumstances around us don’t look as if that’s going to be the case.”
“The God we serve says, ‘With me all things are possible,’” Scogin said. “My prayer is that you would take your enduring hope and run toward things like cancer, like inequality, like injustice, and say, ‘With God I am going to take you down.’”
Graduating senior Hope Reynolds of Exton, Pennsylvania, spoke next, sharing perspective based on her experience since being diagnosed with breast cancer in September and with the surgery, chemotherapy and other challenges that have followed.
“Suffering is an inevitable part of life, but with God’s gift of hope we can endure almost anything,” said Reynolds, a member of the women’s swim team who earlier in the month had received the Hope Athletics Karen Page Courage Award for her courageous fight with the disease. “Just as Romans 12:12 tells us, ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be persistent in prayer.’”
“As we begin our lives outside of Hope College, remember: Even in your toughest of times, you are not alone,” Reynolds said. “Put your faith in God, trust in that He has a purpose for everything that you go through, lean on your loved ones and the people around you, and never, ever lose hope.”
With more than a year of worldwide experience with the COVID-19 pandemic providing an object lesson, featured Commencement speaker Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren began the event’s formal address with what he acknowledged is an uncomfortable truth: Life is fleeting.
“You know well how your life, your reality — our global reality — can change in a day,” said Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at the college. “You are acquainted with pain and suffering, and you know, some more intimately than others, of how vulnerable, tenuous, fragile and uncertain life can be. In fact, the only certainty in this life is that one day it will end.”
He encouraged the graduates to consider mortality not with a sense of dread but as motivation to spend the time along the way on the right things. He correspondingly referred to finding their sense of purpose — and titled his address — as “The Final Assignment.”
“People are often uncomfortable thinking about death. Others think dwelling on it robs this life of meaning. After all, how can life be meaningful if all ends anyway?” he said. “But I tend to think that death is precisely what makes this life so precious and gives life so much meaning.”
“When you realize that life is finite, it helps you prioritize the things in your life that are truly meaningful,” Van Tongeren said. “Just as we would never complete any assignment if there were no due date, we wouldn’t feel pressure to live meaningfully if life never ended. You see, this reminder is that your final assignment — how you live your life — has a due date.”
While he noted that the graduates would need to determine for themselves what their meaning would be, he outlined three “competing cultural narratives” that serve as misdirected distractions: a consumerist emphasis on acquiring possessions; the pursuit of status and recognition in the name of notoriety and pride; and a misplaced piety and self-righteousness, whether in the name of religion or another cause, that lacks the compassion and courage of an embodied relationship with the divine, and lacks the humility and empathy of true community with others.
“And all of these cultural myths that promise meaning but never deliver are couched in the biggest lie of them all: There will always be more time,” Van Tongeren said. “We assume we’ll have time to course-correct, begin living intentionally in five, 10, 20 years. We’ll get around to it — eventually. But these are bets on an unguaranteed future, in which time is fleeting.”
In contrast, he offered three priorities that support the search.
“First, go all in on love,” he said. “Relationships weave the tapestry of meaning in our lives and other people are often the source of our most meaningful moments. But too often, we fail to love others authentically.“
“Second, adopt a spirit of humility,” Van Tongeren said. “Own your mistakes. Be quick to admit when you’re wrong. Acknowledge your biases and work to combat them. Share the praise. Take your portion of blame. Seek to increase the diversity of your friends and colleagues, intentionally pursuing people who think, look and are different than you. Read against yourself. Assume you might be wrong. Ask for forgiveness and offer it to others. Be quick to listen. Stay curious. And, this is a big one: Be willing to change your mind — even your whole cultural worldview — when you’ve encountered sufficient evidence to do so.”
“Third, and finally, put in the work,” he said. “The things in life that truly make life worth living — a weathered relationship that stood the test of time, working for social change, overturning oppression, fighting injustice — take considerable work.”
And through it all, Van Tongeren said, don’t give up.
“[B]e wary of hopelessness, because it gives way to indifferent resignation, which eventually becomes passive endorsement,” he said. “Hope is a brave act of defiance. It takes courage to see the world as it is — beautiful and broken, terrible and precious, tragic and sweet — and choose to envision a different future, where love and justice impel us and wholeness and healing become our chief goals.”
The day’s activities began at 8:30 a.m. with the college’s Baccalaureate service, which is traditionally held in Dimnent Memorial Chapel with hundreds of family members and friends attending but because of the pandemic took place outside in the Pine Grove in the central campus with only the graduates present. The Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson, who is the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel, delivered the sermon, “How Will You Spend Your Day?”
“It’s important to answer,” he said. “Your future is simply a collection of your days. And how you spend your day is how you are going to spend your life.”
“You can spend a life chasing a day, and discover that you missed your life,” Johnson said. “But if you can discern what is a good day — a best day — and pursue it — every day — over and over again — well then you will have discovered the wisdom of a life worthy of living.”
Johnson built his presentation around Matthew 6:33, where during the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “But strive first for the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The passage, Johnson said, reflects the need not only to set worthwhile priorities but to be deliberate in doing so. “Sometimes we can just float along — thinking if we just don’t make a decision — we can keep all our options open,” he said. “Don’t lose your nerve about making decisions that move your life forward. Not making a decision is a decision.”
In contrast, he said, the choice called for by Jesus provides a path to days and a life with meaning.
“Make a decision to say no to all that is false; decide early in life to reject and renounce all that is hateful and angry; decide each day to say no to sitting in the seat of the scoffer, the cynic, and the path that leads towards sin,” Johnson said.
“Jesus’ invitation to prioritize the Kingdom of God is a summons to participate in a reality larger than yourself,” he said. “To occupy a residence in the Kingdom of God is to be distinguished by a counter-cultural passport, as you seek to live-out the way of Jesus.”
“It’s he who gives us a different script, where forgiveness is prioritized over retribution,
where responsibility is privileged over blame, and where despair is canceled by hope,”
Johnson said. “To strive first for the Kingdom of God means to live with God’s heart
for the world.”
Read the Baccalaureate Address