Thank you, Provost Rudenga.
President Timmermans, Graduates, Administration, Faculty, Parents, and Friends: I consider it a great honor to stand before you this morning. I thank you all for the opportunity to share in this moment of celebration and I extend my deep and heartfelt congratulations to all of the graduates. You are on the threshold of some wonderful times and I wish you all of God's blessings as you walk with Him into the future.
If someone had told me back in 1967 when I was a student here at Trinity Christian College that I would be standing in front of graduates in 2013 as their commencement speaker – well, I just wouldn't have believed it. But here I am. And I am both humbled and honored to be here – even though I know the impressive processional and the individual walks across the stage are much more exciting. I'll try to do my best to be short!
As I thought about this day, I thought it would be important to first learn a little about the graduating class - and I heard this very interesting story. It seems that there are two young men in the class who shall remain nameless for reasons that will be clear. They were really good friends and were taking Organic Chemistry one semester. They both did really well in this class on all the quizzes, midterms, labs, etc. and going into the final exam, they both had solid "As." These two friends were so confident going into finals week - even though the Chem final was on a Monday - that they decided to go up to Calvin College to visit with some friends the weekend before their exam. So they did this and had a great time.
However, they ended up staying longer than they had planned and they didn't make it back to Trinity until early Monday morning. Rather than taking the final then, they found Dr. Sytsma after he had given the exams and explained to him why they missed it. They told him that they went up to Grand Rapids for the weekend and had planned to come back in time to study, but they had a flat tire on the way back and didn't have a spare and couldn't get help for a long time. So they were late getting back to campus.
Dr. Sytsma thought this over and agreed that they could make up the final on the following day. The two young men were elated and relieved. So - they studied that night and went in the next day at the time that Dr. Sytsma had told them. He placed them in separate rooms, handed each of them a test booklet and told them to begin. They looked at the first problem, which was something simple about free radical formation and was worth 5 points. "Cool," they thought, "this is going to be easy." They did that problem and then turned the page. They were totally unprepared, however, for what they saw on the next page. It said . . . 95 points "Which tire?"
Well, after that story, I thought it might be best to just concentrate on what it is that I want to say to all of you.
It is said that NO ONE – I mean, absolutely NO ONE – remembers what was said at their graduation, if they can even remember who it was who spoke. So I am under no illusion about this daunting task before me. I want to say something meaningful – something - at least one thing - that you will remember long after this day is over.
So I did what all of us usually do – I went to the Internet to see if I could find some inspiration in speeches others have given at various colleges. I looked at speeches from President Obama to Oprah Winfrey - from Winston Churchill to Thomas Friedman - from President Bush to Ellen DeGeneres (who, by the way, wore a bathrobe to Tulane's graduation ceremony once because she had heard that everyone there would be wearing robes). And who could forget the poignant speech of Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005? I think it's one of the more sobering and yet realistic speeches ever given to graduates. Let me quote just a little from it:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday – not too long from now – you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.”
I must say, these were all great speeches. Their words were helpful, kind, advisory and thoughtful. They were meant to inspire and I'm sure they did. However, what struck me in all of the speeches that I read were the same words that came up over and over again: words like success, passion, optimism, courage, be yourself, don't let someone else define you, get to the top, etc., etc., etc. Where was ANY mention of God, of following Him, of leaning on Him in the difficult times? Where was faith, and love and supporting each other? Where was the Christian life depicted? I could not find one speech even alluding to such things. Not one.
You, graduates, are graduating from a CHRISTIAN institution – a place where you were loved and valued and encouraged. I am sure when you made the choice to come here, you wanted that perspective on your learning. Now it is your turn to give that to the world. Sure - success is great. Of course – we want you to use this gift of an education for good in the world. But what about you personally? What do you need to live a truly joyful and honest life with integrity? You need God.
I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that I am surprised to find myself here today. I wouldn't have dreamt it back when I was a student. But it's the perfect example of how little we really control our futures. As I look back on my life, I had little to do with how it turned out. Oh sure – I thought I was making the decisions, but time and time again, I can now see that things happened for a reason - and I had no idea at the time. Let me just share one story with you to show you what I mean.
My college degree was in secondary vocal music education, but after student teaching and graduation, I really didn't want to teach music. It was 1970 and teaching positions were hard to get. I had studied with some excellent students - far better in music than I was and far more interested in it as well. After much thought, a job interview, and a job offer, I just said no. It didn't feel right to take a job in something I really didn't want to do when jobs were so scarce. Or so I thought at the time. It didn't feel right, but I found it difficult to explain my decision to people because it didn't seem to make any sense to them.
Frankly, it didn't make sense to me either. However, it was in the next few years that I worked for the first time on a political campaign and learned through that experience that I had a passion for government, public service, and politics. I had never given political science or government a thought when I was a student because I had never had any experience in that area. It was only then - a few years after graduation - that God brought all kinds of people into my life who influenced me to seek out this side of myself. And so, to make a long story short, after I worked on several political campaigns, I won my own election in 1982 and for 15 years afterward, every job I took involved public service in one way or another.
Fast forward to 1991. That year I was encouraged to run for mayor of Grand Rapids, MI. The polls showed I could win, the money was there, the support was there – everything looked right for a run. But something nagged at me. Something didn't feel right. I prayed about it, I sought counsel about it, I even took a walk alone with God in the woods and asked Him to make it clear to me if this was what I should do. Well, He really didn't make it clear, no voice came to me from heaven, but in the end I simply had to say no because that was what felt "right" to me. I couldn't really explain to anyone why, but it certainly seemed to be the right decision for me. So I declined that opportunity, had to deal with people saying I was crazy, and had to endure the embarrassment of looking like I was not up to the challenge or whatever else some folks wanted to say about me.
Two years later, our Congressman at the time, Paul Henry, a friend and mentor to me for years, asked me to be his campaign manager. I had always wanted to work for him, so here was my chance. In 1992, at 50 years old, he was running for his fourth term in that seat. However, two weeks before the general election, Paul was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Since we believed he would pull through, we carried on with the campaign - frantically attended all of his scheduled appearances, brought in resources from Washington to help finish the campaign that Paul could no longer do, and saw the campaign through to the end. In the end, on election night, he won the seat with 68% of the vote. However, he was only able to return to Washington to be sworn in. He died that following summer.
Now what does this have to do with the earlier career decision to pass on teaching or the mayoral decision of 1991? Given the stress of what we knew about Paul and what we didn't know about his future, his family and all of his staff were under incredible pressure. Due to my long-time relationship with him, I was the only person that Paul's family trusted to handle the media, their privacy, and any public information about him. In addition, Paul's staff chose me to represent them as well - because I was his friend - because they could all trust me to not get sucked into the drama of the situation. I was in a strategic position to do all of that for him and for the people in his life, let alone the community he had so faithfully served. Had I been mayor at that time, had I been a music teacher somewhere, I would not have been able to be there at this crucial time.
This is just one example. There are so many more that I could share, but in closing, let me mention one more thing. I tend to be an obnoxious problem solver. My friends know that when they come to me with a personal issue or a difficult problem, I want to fix it. My first reaction is always to see if I can help them - see if I can solve their problem. It's only when I see the look in their eyes, reminding me that they don't want me to solve whatever it is - they just want me to listen - they just want to be heard. It's uncertain who coined this phrase, but it is one of my favorites: "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived." I cannot tell you how true that is.
Live in the mystery. Be open to what you might not know. Realize that God is in there with you and it's OK.
So Graduates, as you are about to start a new chapter in your life, what I'd like you to remember today is that you were encouraged to be open to God's leading, to allow God to work through you for His good. Even when you have no idea why or where He is leading you. You may think that the degree you've earned will be your future. It may not be. That's the mystery. Of course, you should plan for your future and have a vision for where you want to go, but if something doesn't feel "right", pay attention to that. It could be the Holy Spirit nudging you to make a decision that may not make a lot of sense, but will be very clear in retrospect. True success in life starts with the relationship you already have with your Lord and Maker. Let the Holy Spirit live in you every day to guide you. For it is He that will hold you in His hand for the rest of your life. It is He who loves you.
Congratulations, Graduates. I wish you God's blessing in your futures - and a lifetime of mystery.