As the members of Hope College's Class of 2005 marked the end of their days as undergraduates, Commencement speaker Paul Boersma called them to greatness.
The college's 140th Commencement ceremony was held on Sunday, May 8, at Holland Municipal Stadium, with approximately 5,500 attending. More than 670 Hope seniors, a record number, participated. The class included graduates from throughout the United States and from foreign nations, including Bulgaria, France, Germany, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Oman, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Romania.
Recalling Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," Boersma, who is the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Endowed Senior Chaplain at Hope, challenged the graduates to earn greatness for their generation by meeting the needs of their era. He titled his address "From Generation to Generation.
"Brokaw, the anchor for 'NBC Nightly News' from 1983 to 2004, makes a strong case for the World War II generation as being the greatest generation any society has ever produced," Boersma said.
"However, his statement prodded me to start thinking deeply on this: 'What does it take to make a generation great?,' " he said. "And even more specific and relevant to you, the Class of 2005 - what would it take to make your generation, all 80 million-plus of you, to be great?
Boersma recited Matthew 5:3-19, in which Jesus affirms the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers, and calls those who believe to live their lives accordingly, noting that they "will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
"Did you catch it? Did you hear some of the Kingdom criteria for greatness?," Boersma asked. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, that is to say the humble among us. Blessed are the merciful or anyone who picks up a towel and basin instead of anger and violence. Blessed are the peacemakers - the ones who are willing to embrace someone with whom they disagree rather than to oppress the same one. Blessed are the pure in heart, who dole out grace and forgiveness as if it were free.
"You get the point, that's what it means to be great," he said. "Greatness is not defined by the number of commas in your salary. Greatness is not defined by the title next to your name or the number of people under you, or the number of awards you've received. Jesus defines greatness as when you do the commands of God and teach them to others. He is emphasizing that teaching follows doing. If you are going to teach others about the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is crucial that you show them the gospel of Jesus first.
He reviewed ways he had seen Hope's students and young graduates living such greatness - through charitable efforts like the student-run "Dance Marathon," through staying after campus worship services to pray for others in need, and through careers devoted to living and working among the poor.
He outlined a variety of the needs that will face the graduates as they move beyond campus.
"Could your generation be the generation of people who cared enough to solve the pandemic of AIDS and HIV in the nations of Africa where over half the population is infected? Could your generation be the generation that reaches across the world and opens its arms and hearts to over three million orphan girls in China? Could your generation come alongside the 35 million Americans who will suffer from depression in their lifetime, a large number of whom will be teenagers? Could your generation be the generation that gives loaf and cup to eight million people who will die each year because they're too poor to stay alive?
"Hope College Class of 2005, our world desperately needs a generation of people to live out the commands of God in such a way that it will change it for the good," he said. "Could your generation be the generation that some day others will look at and say without hesitation, 'That was a great generation'? Not because you made a lot of money, not because you produced more things, but because of the way you lived.
Earlier in the day, the Baccalaureate sermon was delivered by the Rev. David Bast of Grand Rapids, who is broadcast minister and president of Words of Hope.
Bast based his sermon, titled "Living Constructively," on the last sentence of 1 Corinthians 8:1, in which the Apostle Paul wrote, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." He called on the graduates to guide their lives with love, noting that knowledge alone is not enough.
"Knowledge. It's a great thing, but not an entirely unmixed blessing. If the history of the 20th century has proved anything, it's proved the truth that knowledge is a two-edged sword," he said.
"The scientific knowledge that has lengthened our lives and has given them a level of comfort and luxury that would have been the envy of royalty just a century ago has at the same time produced ever more efficient killing machines. The wonderful digital technology that enables you to correct all those typing errors so quickly or to download Mozart to your iPods," Bast said, "that same technology is what enables child pornography to flourish and spread everywhere.
Bast echoed Paul's statement about knowledge with some well-known proverbs: "Let sleeping dogs lie," "Curiosity killed the cat," and "Leave well enough alone.
At the same time, he emphasized that he was not denigrating knowledge itself.
"No, it is unconstrained knowledge that we're warned against," Bast said. "When knowledge is pursued without limits, when knowledge of ourselves and our world is divorced from knowledge of God, and - supremely--when knowledge is separated from love, that's when it turns bad, when it turns dark, when it turns dangerous.
Conversely, Bast said, love builds. He noted that Paul compares the church to a structure to which all contribute.
"Love builds up the body; it also builds up the individuals who are the living stones that constitute the body," Bast said.
To live in love, Bast said, is to have unconditional, selfless regard for others.
He cited a story about the fourth-century bishop Martin of Tours, who as a young Roman soldier had cut his cloak in two and given half to a shivering beggar. Later Martin dreamed of seeing Jesus wearing such a garment in heaven. When an angel asked him why, Bast said, Jesus replied, "Because my friend Martin gave it to me.
"Loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength; loving neighbor as we love ourselves; loving God by loving neighbor - that is to live constructively," Bast said.
How constructively the graduates live, he said, will determine their real final grade.
"Today you graduate from college, and I congratulate you" Bast said. "But you have not yet taken your final exam.
"One day your life - and mine - will be tested, finally and forever," he said.
"It's going to be an open-book exam with just one question. Not 'How much did you make?' Not 'How much did you know?' Not, 'How much did you publish?' Not 'How much did you own?' Not even 'How much did you accomplish?' Just this - 'How much did you love?