posted May 7, 2006

Graduates Encouraged to Seek Meaning

With its graduation at hand, the Class of 2006 at Hope College was encouraged to live life seeking the meaning beyond the definitions.

The college's 141st Commencement exercises were held at Holland Municipal Stadium on Sunday, May 7. The participants included 622 graduating seniors from throughout the United States as well as Chile, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Romania, Saudi Arabia and the Virgin Islands.

The Commencement address, "Seeking the Spheres," was delivered by Dr. Rhoda Janzen, assistant professor of English at Hope, who in keeping with her interest in poetry found guidance for living in the concept of metaphor.

She derived her speech's title from Walt Whitman's poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider," which likens a spider's work to fill and link space with its web to the soul's effort to make connections. She also recalled Psalm 19:1-4, in which the heavens are said to be telling the glory of God.

"Why is it when we feel great emotion--overwhelming awe, breathless passion, debilitating despair--that we gravitate to metaphor?," Janzen asked. "It is because metaphor by definition offers a pliancy that can accommodate the expression of extreme feeling, since it compares an actual emotion to something so large, so extravagant, that the speaker must imagine the degree of hyperbole."

"Metaphor needs to be loose and elastic for it to do what we want it to do," she said. "We ask it to describe the indescribable."

Janzen said that language itself functions in much the same way, noting that there is more to what is described than the words can convey.

"Words are like helium balloons held on a string: they're at their best when you let them fly as far as the string will go," she said. "Tellingly, though, you can't let them go altogether. If you do, no balloon. And if you tighten your grip and hold the helium balloon by its blowhole, you don't get to see what the balloon can do--after all, the point of a helium balloon is to fly and bob and command our attention with its beautiful defiance of the laws of gravity."

"Therefore, we may say that the string is necessary," Janzen said. "The string calls our attention to the essential blank space between balloon and hand, between word and meaning."

The graduates, she said, should live in that space between, moving from the literal definitions of the knowledge they acquired in college--and will continue to acquire--onward in search of the meaning beyond it.

"Graduates, you have all learned some stuff in your years at Hope College. You have learned the words, the terminology, the vocabulary and all the concepts they represent," Janzen said. "But I urge you now to look at the string you hold in your hand, not at the balloon it is tied to. Find the space inside you that wonders, imagines, and questions."

"It's not what you have learned; it's who you have learned to be," she said. "You have become thoughtful Christians and citizens who can challenge authority rather than accept it blindly. You have learned to ask who profits and at what cost to the environment, the nation, and the global community. You have learned both to build and mend fences. You have learned the greatest lesson we professors have been trying to teach you--that we all have so very much more to learn."

Janzen closed her remarks with a poem of her own, written specifically for the 622 members of the graduating class. "Travelers, seek the spheres," the poem concluded. "Your destination never nears. You do not/finish here. You begin."

Earlier in the day the Rev. Stephen M. Norden, founding pastor of New Hope Reformed Church of Powell, Ohio, delivered the Baccalaureate sermon, titled "The Thoughts That Underlie Hope."

He based his text on Hebrews 6:13-20, which notes that God's promises are fulfilled in Jesus Christ: "We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a fore-runner on our behalf, has entered..."

Norden cautioned against seeking the wrong kind of hope, since it ultimately will fail to prove lasting. The inadequacy of false hope, he said, is apparent in the face of the challenges levied by the world.

"As I watch, listen and read about what is happening in our culture, it occurs to me that a pall of grim hopelessness hangs over us," he said. "As we live with the aftermath of 9/11, as we daily confront the toll that the war in Iraq extracts in human life and on our national psyche, as each of us tries to navigate our way in a volatile economy, hope seems to be in short supply. I wonder if the erosion of hope is a consequence of our searching for hope in the wrong places or misunderstanding the very substance of hope."

"Authentic hope is not a consequence of wishful thinking," he said. "Certainly all of us have wishes for ourselves, for others, for our futures and, in large measure, these wishes are products of our desires, reflections, the perceptions of what we think would be best or satisfying for us. But, when all is said and done, hope that is the result of wishful thinking is nothing more than a self-induced subjective response to something we want. And no matter how hard we try to buttress that hope with personal energy or personal guts and gusto, the sad reality is that wishful thinking will at some point in time prove to be inadequate."

In contrast, he said, Jesus Christ offers lasting hope, even while at the same time demanding that the focus be taken away from oneself. It is a message at odds, he said, with the efforts of "a culture that is constantly trying to convince us that we are at the center of the universe."

"It is no secret that our Lord's message of discipleship is as counter-cultural today as it was when he first proclaimed it," Norden said. "But the message that Jesus would have us learn is that following him does not equate to a life of drudgery, tedium and mediocrity but one that generates hope the more we spend our lives in serving Christ by serving others."

Norden also said that "authentic hope inspires imagination." He recalled the Old Testament prophet Joel, "who prophesied of that day when God's Spirit would be poured out on all people, that day when God's daughters and sons would prophecy, and old men would dream dreams and young men would see visions for the Spirit would be alive in all."

"If I could both encourage and exhort you in any way, Class of 2006, I would do so by offering this: God's spirit is alive and at work in you," he said.

"Let the Holy Spirit's power in you, allow this hope that anchors your soul, to inspire you to dream new dreams, to harness the power of your imagination, to grasp hold of the visions that God has given you and cause them to come to fruition."