posted May 3, 2009

2009 Baccalaureate Address

"Aiming for the Best"

by Dr. William Brownson, president emeritus of Words of Hope

Hope College Baccalaureate
Sunday, May 3, 2009, 9:30 a.m.
Dimnent Memorial Chapel

How can I say thanks for words like those and for the great privilege I have of being here to speak to you today?

Mr. President, members of the faculty, family and friends of the graduates, and Class of '09, I congratulate all of you.  As I pondered what I should speak about on this grand occasion, I thought back to my own college days at Davidson.  Someone gave me a book when I was there entitled Borden of Yale, '09.  It's a book that probably shaped my life more deeply and lastingly than anything else that I read in those days.  And I was struck by it because you are the Class of '09, and maybe there's a word from Borden's life for you.  I'll tell more about that later.

Now I want to speak especially to you who are graduating.  When you were growing up, your family wanted you to be ambitious, right?  They wanted you to have an aim in life, something to aspire toward and work for.  They wanted you to have a dream, because as that line from South Pacific reminds us, "You gotta have a dream.  If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have your dream come true?"

I used to think about that when I taught preaching across the street years ago.  I talked to the students about having a purpose in every message they preached, something they wanted to accomplish by God's grace, a response that they were looking for from people.  Because as some wag has put it, "If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time."

You're moving out now into the life of the wider world.  I wonder what ambitions are stirring in you?  What do you hope to be, and to accomplish in your life?  What will you invest your energies, your heart's affections in?  If I were able to speak, as I wish I could, to every one of you personally about what's ahead, I'd probably hear of many dreams and visions and hopes and aspirations, and maybe a lot of confusion and uncertainty, too.  It's such an uncertain time to be venturing into the wider world.  But if there's some kind of passion stirring in your life today, what is it?

All of us know that not all ambitions are created equal.  Some are actually toxic.  By that I mean when you get what you want, it doesn't satisfy.  It lets you down.  It even wounds you.  If your main aim in life is great wealth, you could turn out like the fabled King Midas.  He wanted everything he touched to turn to gold.  He got his wish, and it was great until the day he touched his children and their warm vitality became cold and lifeless.  If money is your main aim, your family will be badly hurt.

Maybe it's fame.  You want to be well known.  You want to have your name a household word.  But you know, sometimes that may happen in ways that don't make you feel good.  When I was a young pastor, I served a church in a town in New Jersey - I won't mention the name, but there were people that said it was "the worst town in New Jersey."  And I was serving a very small church, but some exciting things began to happen there, and sometimes I had a yen that people would know about what was happening in our little church.  But a terrible crime occurred.  A young man in our church murdered a classmate.  It was in all the Sunday papers after it happened.  And my name became rather well known as the pastor of the killer.  So much for my dreams of fame!

Maybe you want to get ahead.  You want to surpass everyone in your field.  And yet when you do, you may find that some of the friends you had along the way aren't there any more.  You got to the top, but it's lonely there.

Now I'm not knocking those life aspirations.  They're surely better than cynicism and apathy.  And yet they're not worth investing your heart's affection and your life's energies in them, are they?

Let me remind you about a man who sought something better, aimed for the best.  His name was Saul of Tarsus.  He is known by us as the Apostle Paul.  In the passage you heard a little while ago, Paul was musing about life and death, and saying that to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord would be a wonderful thing.  Then he said that whether at home or away, whether here or there, he and his fellow Christians made it their aim to please Him, to please Christ.

What sparked that kind of aim in a man who had been a red-handed persecutor of Christians?  He tells us.  He tells us about his desire for resurrection life, when mortality will be swallowed up by life, and that surely motivated.  He talked about the awesome sense that we will all give account of ourselves to God at the judgment seat of Christ.  But by far the most powerful motivation that made the apostle what he was is expressed in these words:  "Christ's love compels us..."  There was a compelling power for him in the love of Jesus Christ for him and for the world.  And it was built on this logic, this conviction:  one died for all, therefore all died.  And He died for all that those who live - that's us - might live no longer for themselves, but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.  The marvelous, self-giving love of Jesus Christ won this man's heart and made him want to live for the one who had died for him.

When Paul was stopped on the road to Damascus by the risen Jesus, he asked two questions.  The first: "Who are you, Lord?"  The answer came back:  "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."  The second question was: "Lord, what do you want me to do?"  And Paul kept asking that question for the rest of his life:  "Lord, what do you want me to do?"  Well with that burning life goal, what kind of man did he become?  Talk about a mighty force in this world!  He may have been the second-greatest world-changer in human history.  Through this man's life and labor, in great measure the Christian faith became a world movement.  His zeal for God, his tenacious love for people, his passion to preach Christ to everyone on earth and his moving pastoral letters are still touching people all around the world today.  What a life.

And I think of William Wilberforce, another of my heroes.  Maybe you've seen the film about his life, Amazing Grace.  He was a young, promising, gifted member of the British Parliament with an unlimited future in politics.  But his faith in Jesus Christ made him feel the plight of slaves, made him abhor the ugly trade in human life that was so accepted in his day.  And though against fierce opposition, and over many, many years, he fought on tirelessly until throughout the whole the British Empire the slave trade was abolished.  What an achievement in life.

One of my other heroes is Eric Liddell, central figure in another great film, Chariots of Fire.  He had a stunning victory in the 1924 Olympics, but what many people don't know is that after that instead of staying in the British Isles, where he could be assured of fame and fortune, he went back to China, the land of his birth, as a missionary.  And while there he was captured by the Japanese and put into a concentration camp with many Chinese people.  His self-sacrificing love and service to his fellow inmates was so remarkable that Eric Liddell - can you imagine this - has become a national hero in China!  Respected the government.  And I understand that there will be a sequel to Chariots of Fire entitled The Flying Man, to be created in part there in China.  What a beautiful, poignant story of the man who died in that prison camp after refusing to be brought back to England.  Winston Churchill interceded for him and wanted him to be able to return, and instead Liddell chose to send a pregnant woman in his place.

And then, I think of Mother Teresa, that tiny Albanian nun who has captured the heart of the world.  You know about what she did, going out to the wretched poor on the streets of Calcutta, bringing them in to warmth and safety, holding them in her arms as they died.  And all of that, she said, was for the sake of Jesus, in a flame of love that answered His.

You know about those people.  You celebrate with me their lives of self-offering love.  Let me tell you about one more:  Borden of Yale '09.  Bill Borden was the heir of the Borden family fortune, a multi-millionaire in his youth.  Between high school and college he went on a tour around the globe to put him in touch with the world's need.  At Yale he was president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a stalwart on the wrestling and rowing teams, a man admired and loved throughout the Yale community.  He was a devout Christian.  The thing he used to ask himself about every issue he faced, every decision he had to make about the future:  "Is this pleasing to Him?"  And when Yale days were over and Princeton Seminary, he committed himself to go as a missionary to unreached people in China's far west, inspired for that kind of ministry by Hope's own Samuel Zwemer.  And he sailed for Cairo, hoping to learn Arabic and later Chinese, but only a few short weeks after arriving in Cairo, he died of acute bacterial meningitis.

The story of Borden's life and death was in almost every newspaper in the U.S.  One of his teachers, who had been talking with a man who scoffed contemptuously at the Christian faith, gave this man one of the articles about Borden.  No contempt now.  The man shook his head.  He said, "I can't understand it.  There's no accounting for such a life."  Some time after, a prominent minister said the same words:  "There's no way of explaining a life like this."  And then he added, "apart from Jesus Christ."

Each one of these incandescent careers was sparked and moved by devotion to Jesus Christ in response to His love.  And what moves me about it as I read of them and think of them is not only the self giving, but also the joyful abandon that there was in doing it - and the love.  What a powerful love!

And you know about that from your experience at Hope College.  I've been around this college now for 45 years of living in Holland, and I see so much of how people live when they are committed to Christ and want to serve their human fellows.  And I've seen that in the leadership of this college, and I've seen it in the chaplain's department in this college, I've seen it in the faculty and the staff.  And you've seen it in all of those and in your fellow students.  There is one person that I want to life up that I have appreciated for many, many years, and that is your retiring coach and athletic director, Ray Smith.  When Ray played pro football in Canada, they called him "the straight arrow."  That spoke about his uprightness, his integrity.  That spoke about his moral standards.  It spoke about his unswerving commitment to Jesus Christ.  And I've observed him in many situations over almost 40 years, and I've seen him live that out here.  What a contribution to Hope College he has made, and to the kingdom of God.

So you've seen that here.  You've learned about that, how ordinary people who aim for the best can make such a difference.

Most of us will never do anything that the wider world will think of as remarkable or outstanding.  But Mother Theresa has taught us something beautiful and true about what matters:  She said, "We are not called to do great things.  We're called to do little things with great love."

Yes.  Little things, like acting justly and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  Those people that you have known and seen, which some of you are, they're aiming for the best.  And for me, the loved friend of Jesus Christ is incomparably the best.

I was reading these words from the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson:  "Love your enemies, bless your haters, said the Greatest of the great."

And isn't He that, the greatest of the great, the one towering figure on the world stage, the one supremely worthy?  I mean, imagine: the Lord of everything, giving himself up for us!  We get some glimpse of how He is to be esteemed when we hear the music of the heavenly choirs that sing:  "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open seals, for you were slain and by your blood you have ransomed for God saints from every tribe and tongue and people and nation...  Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing."

So, dear graduates, let the love of Jesus Christ draw you to a life of self-giving service to others and to Him.  Live near to Him in prayer and in the Scriptures.  Seek out a fellowship of caring hearts where you can be accountable.  Pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in your life.  Trust in Jesus Christ to live out in you His life of self-giving love.

Wouldn't it be something if down the line people observe you, people remember you, someone might be led to say something like what they said of Borden:  "There's no accounting for such a life...  apart from Christ."?

Dear friends, you know my hope and prayer for you as you graduate, as you leave Hope over the next days, is that each of you will go as a follower of Jesus Christ.  But let me say this to you as a final word.  If you claim to be a Christian, pray that you may be a real one.  It's so easy for us even when we know the Lord to give lip service to Jesus and then go on living for ourselves.  I wish I could say I haven't fallen into that trap myself, but I have, many times - large tracks of my life, large patterns of my behavior that show that I was living pretty much for myself.  That mournful ditty that I've heard could have been said of me at times:  "I've lived for myself, I thought for myself, for myself and none beside, just as if Jesus had never lived, as if He had never died."  But I can bear witness to you about this:  that the Lord is very patient, and very merciful with his people, and draws us back from our wanderings into self-centeredness.  And I can say that the times when His love has gripped me again have made me feel that I wanted to live for Him more than anything else.  And when that began to translate itself into ministry to others, those have been the best times, those have been the most fruitful times, those have been the most joyful times in my life.  And that discovery of God's grace it what I pray for you.

A great New Testament scholar one said this, and I've never forgotten it.  I heard it years ago.  He said, "The distinguishing mark of New Testament Christianity" - that is, the real thing, the original article - "The distinguishing mark of New Testament Christianity is the sense of overwhelming indebtedness to Jesus Christ."  In other words, if you really know Him, you feel that you owe Him - everything!

Class of '09, God bless you as you move into the future and aim for the best.  Amen.