posted September 27, 2000

Text of Fall Convocation Address

Sunday, August 27, 2000

"The Wonder of the Present Moment"

by Dr. Gerald L. Sittser

When I attended Hope College many years ago, I was certain I knew what my future vocation was supposed to be. I was going to be a medical doctor. So I enrolled in science and math courses to get on with the preparation. Other academic courses were a distraction and inconvenience to me, sort of like having to do chores on a beautiful summer day.

But I made a fatal mistake when I selected a college. Hope College was-and still is, obviously-a liberal arts college. It required students to take a broad range of liberal studies courses. So if I wanted to earn a degree from Hope, I would have to read Dostoyevsky, and listen to Beethoven, and study the causes of the Crimean War, and learn how to write a good persuasive essay.
I had to sign up for a frosh writing class first. I was not inclined in my early years to read much. In fact, the only books I remember reading before college were two classics I'm sure you've heard of: Toyon, Dog of the North and Tarzan and the Ant Men. I still have them in my library, by the way. And I refused to write anything at all, except under duress. My instructor for the composition course, Dr. Nancy Miller, now a dean at Hope College, knew my type well. When I told her that I simply did not need this course because I was not planning to write for a career, she replied, as I recall, with something like, "Jerry, you never know how things will turn out."

She was right. I didn't know how things would turn out. I didn't go to medical school; I went to seminary. And I didn't become a medical doctor; I became a minister instead. And later I returned to graduate school for a Ph.D. Now I work as a college professor. I speak and write as well. So, words are central to what I do. That composition course proved to be more useful than I could have imagined. Besides, Dr. Miller has benefited, too, by having an illustration she can use all the time now of frosh presumption and stupidity.

I think about a second experience, taken also from my years at Hope College. It was at the end of my sophomore year, during the week of May Day festivities. I think you still have May Day here. Drizzle forced inside the May Day coronation. So I sat in the back of this very chapel, way back in that corner, with my fraternity friends. I was a Frater back then. And we were present to applaud the women whom we considered worthy of making the court, namely, our friends. Several of them did in fact make the court, which only validated our superior tastes and reinforced our insufferable conceit. Finally the moment came for the coronation of the queen. When the emcee announced her name, I slid down in the pew and whispered, "Anybody but her. She is so pathetically nice, so responsible, so Christian. What were students thinking about when they voted her in!" I still remember her name: Lynda. The reason why I do is because I married her a year and a half later.
You never do know how things will turn out.

You, the members of the class of 2004, will spend more time than you can imagine over the next four years thinking about your future and making big plans for what lies ahead. You're going to devote endless hours to pondering career pathways, and job possibilities, and graduate school options, and marital prospects. And rightly so. If there's an appropriate time to consider these important choices, it is certainly now, during your college years.

But sooner or later you'll also learn how little control we human beings really have. However well we plan and well prepared we are, we're going to encounter surprises along the way-some wanted, some not. We'll pursue one vocation, only to find ourselves doing a completely different one ten years from now. We'll consider marriage as inevitable as going into debt and spend the rest of our lives being, or we'll marry Mr. or Mrs. Right and wonder what went wrong five years later. We'll plan on having a small family and end up with quadruplets. We'll settle into a comfortable life in Hamilton, Michigan until some fiery missionary inspires us to work for Wycliffe Bible Translators in Congo. We'll go to work for IBM and end up living as a bohemian on the beach in Santa Cruz, writing suspense novels. Or we'll start a teaching career in a nice suburb and conclude it by serving as a school counselor in the toughest school in a neighborhood in Chicago. And not to sound too morbid, but some of us might not even live long enough to graduate from Hope College. We do know how things will turn out.

Which is why so many great spiritual writers have emphasized the significance-and the wonder-of the present moment. It's almost too obvious to say, although I'm going to say it now: This present moment is the only time we really have. The past is done, unchangeable and irretrievable, like a baseball that's left the pitcher's hand, headed straight toward the batter's box. The future is not here yet; it only looms ahead as a range of possibilities, any one of which could become a reality. The "eternal now," as Quaker mystic and philosopher Thomas Kelly called it, is the only time we really have.

Augustine of Hippo, a fifth-century bishop and theologian, devoted a chapter of his Confessions to the subject of time and eternity. Time itself was a mystery to him. As he writes, "What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I don't know any more." Yet Augustine had more to say than that. He was certain of at least some truths about time. I quote again: "I can state with confidence, however, that this much I do know: if nothing passed away there would be no past time; if there was nothing still on its way there would be no future time; and if nothing existed, there would be no present time." He argued that the eternal God created time. God transcends time, all times are the present to God. We humans are bound by time: we have a past and a future, but we can only really live in the present. Strangely, if we do give ourselves completely to the present moment, we will relate most meaningfully to the past and to the future, however much they're beyond our control. We will be able to redeem the unchangeable past and prepare for the uncertain future. It all depends on how well we live in the present moment.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century Jesuit writer and spiritual director, agreed with this insight. He believed that the secret of the spiritual life is surrendering to God in the ordinariness of each moment. Quote: "The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams, but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. . . . The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which the heart only fathoms in so far as it overflows with faith, trust, and love." He actually calls it the sacrament of the present moment.

I have two examples to illustrate the point. The first comes from a trip I recently took. My three children and I spent the summer in Nairobi, Kenya, or near Nairobi, Kenya. I taught at a university there, and my children did volunteer work at a Mother Teresa orphanage that was situated, like an oasis, right in the middle of a vast slum in downtown Nairobi. My children visited the orphanage twice a week and so became accustomed to the conditions and the routine. They spent the morning hours feeding and caring for severely disabled children, most of whom could not walk and only one of whom could talk. These children pass their days lying on mattresses or if they're more able playing in a large room. Many have not ventured outside the orphanage for years, if at all. Most will die there. Their days follow a routine seemingly as dull as a blank calendar. I talked with a young Kenyan nun while I was helping to feed the children during my one visit there. She described what a typical day was like for her. Listen to this: up at dawn, prayers, breakfast, care of children, more prayers, lunch, rest, prayers, more care of children, dinner, more prayers, care of children, and bed. She has no hot water; no showers; no private room; no TV; no movies; no computers; no email. None of the usual conveniences or distractions. She gets one month off every seven years. While I was thinking to myself-"What an unspeakably boring schedule!"-she said, with a serenity in her voice that I will never forget, "This is my life." She had turned the present moment into something in my mind almost sacramental.

The second example comes from an oddball movie, one of my favorites, Groundhog Day. It tells the story of Phil Connors, an arrogant weatherman from Pittsburgh, who is dispatched to the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to do his weather report live at their annual Groundhog Day Festival. Connors hates this assignment. He does his report with obvious disdain and then urges the crew to return to Pittsburgh as quickly as possible. But a winter storm turns them back. So Connors is forced to spend another night in Punxsutawney. When he wakes up the next morning, however, he discovers that it is again February 2, Groundhog Day, which he is forced to live over again. The same thing happens the next day, too. And on it goes. Connors wakes up morning after morning, but always it's February the 2nd. Every scene happens as it did the day before; every character remains just as each one was the day before. He has entered a time warp.

At first he's overjoyed by the experience. He can live as he pleases and not face any consequences. So he decides to indulge his appetite for alcohol and romance and sex. But soon he tires of pleasure and begins to despair. He has entered into an eternity of Groundhog Days, and it is hell to him. He commits suicide dozens of times, only to wake up the next morning on February 2 with circumstances just as they were.

Connors finally makes a discovery. He realizes that, although the day never changes, he can use the day to change himself. He can become a better person, just a little at a time. He develops his talents. He takes piano lessons, masters ice sculpture, goes to school, memorizes poetry-French poetry, learns a language, all by using just one day over and over again. But then he discovers something else. He can help other people, too. He begins to roam around the town to learn what happens on Groundhog Day. He finds a man choking on his food and saves him, he runs into a couple having difficulty and helps restore their relationship, and he changes a flat tire for a carload of elderly women. Day after day he shows up at the same time and place to help people in crisis. He grows to enjoy the role of serving others and becomes a hero-or better, becomes a saint-in a town that stays forever stuck in just one day.

Connors has only that one day in which to live. His life is literally confined to the present moment, which goes on for what seems like an eternity. But he learns to live that one day well. The story finally ends when Connors wakes up one morning and discovers it's February 3. But by then it is not just the date that has changed. Connors has changed, too. He has become a new man-musician, sculptor, poet, doctor, counselor, helper, friend to everyone-all in just one day.

If the present moment is really the only time we have, how should we live it well? How should you as students use your ordinary days while attending Hope College? I have two brief suggestions. First, I suggest that you be attentive to the little things. While you're going to feel pressure (from your parents, for example, who are paying for this education) to point to the big things that loom in the future and ponder them-career path, graduate school, marriage, and the like, you know how that goes-you'll spend most of your time dealing with the little things. There'll be daily reading assignments, weekly quizzes and papers, conflicts with roommates, jobs, service opportunities, down-time with friends, moral challenges, often very subtle, that quietly demand attention. It will be easy to overlook these little things. Yet the little things we do build habits, however good or bad; they develop character, whether admirable or despicable; and they set a course for our lives, whether toward excellence or toward mediocrity.

Newsweek carried a series of article in late 1999 telling the story of the twentieth century from eyewitnesses. One issue was devoted to sports-noteworthy athletes, amazing feats, unforgettable moments, great sports dynasties. One of the greatest of all dynasties in college sports was UCLA's basketball program in the 1960s and 1970s. Its team won ten national titles, including seven in a row. John Wooden, as you might recall, was the coach. A reporter asked Wooden to reflect on the secret to his success. Rather than mentioning successful offensive plays, or recruitment strategies, or perimeter shooting, or superior training, Wooden provided a different perspective. I quote: "I think it's the little things that really count." It seems little indeed, as he goes on. "The first thing I would show our players at our first meeting was how to take a little extra time putting on their shoes and socks properly. The most important part of your equipment is your shoes and socks. . . . It took just a few minutes, but I did show my players how I wanted them to put on their shoes and socks correctly." As Wooden illustrated, sometimes it makes a big difference to pay attention to the little things.

Second, I suggest that you be attentive to one big thing. While at Hope, search with all your heart for truth. It's the one opportunity you'll have when time and resources are at your disposal for just such a search. Now you're going to have a few epiphanies along the way, I am sure. You will be reading Dostoyevsky and gain some insight that will make your head tingle like you had just been awakened from sleep. You'll succeed in conducting a scientific experiment and feel that you are inching forward toward some great scientific breakthrough. You'll see some pattern in history that will illumine what is happening in the world today. You're going to have a few moments like that. Most of the time you spend here is going to be routine. Those epiphanies will be rare. The search for truth is long and hard and sometimes boring.
But the most important search of all will be a religious one. I am treading on delicate ground here. Hope College has a peculiar identity, much like Whitworth College, the college at which I teach. It claims to be Christian, yet imposes no creed on its students, requires no statement of faith, follows an open admissions policy. You're not going to be forced to believe anything at Hope. Your conscience is going to have to decide truth for you in your search for truth.

As you probably know, most colleges in the United States are decidedly ambivalent about religion, especially the Christian faith. College faculty in particular might study it and teach it. But actual belief makes many faculty feel uncomfortable, as if belief itself was somehow beneath the standards of academic integrity. In matters of religion, college faculty are often better at asking questions than in providing answers. And of course it is the business of a college education to challenge students to ask questions. It takes courage to ask questions, as we all know. But somewhere along the line a college education must also help students find answers, if there are answers to be found. It takes courage to find answers, too. The answers to your questions about God are the most critical of all. It is the one "big thing" that I encourage you to put at the center of your education at Hope College.

I began my own search when I attended Hope. I asked questions; I also found answers. I became a Christian during my years at Hope College. But the journey did not end upon my graduation. I said at the beginning of the address, "You never know how things will turn out." I discovered how true that is in marriage. Lynda and I settled down to a good life together, pursued our vocations, we eventually had four children. Then, nine years ago Lynda was killed when a drunken driver missed a curve and smashed into our minivan. And I lost one of my children, Diana Jane, and my mother, Grace, in the same accident. And I learned in that moment just how big this "big thing" of religion, the Christian faith, really is.

I remember thinking often about the unfairness of it all. I wanted, I demanded fairness from a God who seemed anything but fair after the accident. But a friend and mentor challenged me to consider another perspective. Did I really want to live in a fair world, he asked? A fair world would have spared me the experience of losing three members of my family. But a fair world would have deprived me of them in the first place, for I was in every way unworthy of the presence of such people in my life. What would each of us have if we lived in a fair world? I am not so sure we would like to live in such a world. So I have changed my mind. I would rather risk living in a world that is not fair. That means that I will have to take my fair share of losses along the way-you will, too; but it also means that I will receive some gifts along the way, too. Either way, I will get what I do not deserve.

Which is exactly what grace is. Grace is God's undeserved favor; it's not fair. No religion on planet earth holds up grace like the Christian faith does. Though the God of the Christian faith is high and holy and powerful, he became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ to search for lost and lonely and troubled people like me. He suffered and died and rose again from the dead to give people grace: God's undeserved favor. He is like a shepherd who seeks for a lost sheep, a woman ransacking her home for a lost coin, a father who cares nothing for personal dignity and family fortune, if only he can have his wayward son come home again. In this matter of grace-God's undeserved favor-there is no religion quite like the Christian faith.

Religion might be about the human search for God; the Christian faith is about God's search for humanity. That is the one big thing I urge you to investigate for yourself. And Hope College will provide the support, resources, and freedom to do it well. A few minutes ago, I mentioned a young Catholic nun, who embraced the present moment with such serenity. I realize now that the reason why she could do the little things so well in the orphanage, so peacefully and so contentedly, is because she had been attentive to one big thing. In her search for God she learned that in Christ God had been searching for her. She lived in grace. And that made all the difference.