Welcome newest members of the Hope College community, members of the class of 2019… the 150th class to go through this institution. Welcome also to your families, friends, mentors… all those who are here and have helped bring you to this point in your lives. And finally, welcome to your staff and faculty who will guide you through the college journey on which you embark this week.  

During our time together today, I invite you to think about living a life paying attention and making intentional choices with how you spend the life you’ve been given. Drawing from the award-winning poet, Mary Oliver, let’s consider together:  

“…I do know how to pay attention…
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?[1] 

Do you pay attention fully to the days you are living? Many of us go through our days awake but often numbly following the patterns in how we use our time, what we think about, whom we spend time with, and the hobbies in which we engage. These patterns may include people, activities and places that we have intentionally chosen out of a sense of joy and purpose at some point, but they have become so engrained in our lives that we no longer need to think about them intentionally. Yet some of these rote facets of our lives may be less positive. Do you know the whys and whats that take up the time of the life you have been given? Are they part of your calling and purpose? In contrast to going through the motions without much forethought, what if we lived our lives full of attention and intentionality? Everything we do would then be done with an acute consciousness, fulfilling the core values that we find most essential (such as empathy, self-awareness, curiosity, and responsibility[2] — values around which Hope College has geared courses and co-curricular activities so that you leave this place in four or so years more deeply formed in these values). What if life was built on a type of paying attention that ensures we do not waste the “one wild life”[3] we are given?

Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.
—Anne Lamott

This is the type of life that I — and I would wager the other faculty and staff members who will shepherd your pursuit of knowledge at Hope College — call you to pursue as a student and as a human being. During your time at Hope College, thanks to the liberal arts structure of this institution — whether you major in Engineering or Art, Computer Science or Political Science, Physics or Philosophy — you will have the opportunity to think about the world from a variety of disciplinary and topical perspectives. Perhaps in a social science or philosophy class as part of a major, minor or core curricular course you will read Simone Weil, a French academic philosopher, Christian mystic, human rights and political activist who died due to this activism at age 34.

“… attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity” asserted Weil in calling those who would listen to choose lives of minute-by-minute awareness of the impact they made in each choice they pursued. Weil further asserted that “the highest ecstasy is the attention at its fullest.”

We live into our callings and live well the gift of life we have been given when we pay attention to how we live that life. 

Perhaps in an English class, you will stumble upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “A Psalm of Life” which resonates with Weil’s ideas in calling us not to daze sleepily through life, but to act on purpose with the time we have been given. 

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,[4]
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,"
Was not spoken of the soul.

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait. 

What if you were to pursue life aware of the intentions behind your actions? How could such mindfulness transform the actions you continue doing? The people with whom you continue in relationship? The new endeavors you undertake? The new relationships you pursue? How might your life be transformed more into the life you were created to live with such attention? What if you cleaned up your dorm room, but with the mindset that this is a service to your roommate and an honor of gratefulness to God for the place you have to live, sleep, study and socialize? What if the cleaning were an act of mindful prayer? What if you did your homework — even for your least favorite courses — with the heart and mind that it is an act of grateful worship for the opportunity of education that you have been given and the chance at unexpected learning that may present itself? Perhaps cleaning your room or doing your homework would suddenly take on much more intentional importance. Beyond reorienting how you think about such tasks, what if you assessed how you spend your time in an attentive and intentional way making choices on what things to keep and what things need to be weeded out in order for you to live the “wild life” of purpose to which you are called? Let me highlight seven ways that I believe can help you to live life on purpose — with attention and intentionality — so that you can begin to nurture how you engage your time at Hope and then life beyond. 

Live a Full Life — Full of what is Truly Important

First, fill your life with what is truly important. Make difficult, intentional choices with how you use your time during these next few years… and really throughout life. 

For example, author Anne Lamott writes of one of her friends,

“She's chosen a life of prayer, service and travel. She's always in a sort of infuriating state of wonder, of appreciating what is, instead of fretting about what she wishes was…she was dealt the same basic cards we all were, but somehow she could see that the cards were marked, so she put them down and refused to play.  You can’t win with marked cards.  Refusing to play has left her with hands free to do what really matters to her, what her heart longs to do in this life... "  ― Anne LamottGrace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

We can be so busy. On any given day, when you run into a friend or classmate, and you ask, “How are you?” most responses will be “Good. Busy.” Many times busyness is often mistakenly equated with productivity, but those words are not synonymous. Just because you are spinning your wheels, rushing from one commitment to the next, doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing anything worthwhile. 

You should choose those activities, conversations, classes, excursions — and times of peace, prayer, and meditation — that fill your life with purpose; that lead towards growth in your academic, spiritual and personal life; that offer the challenges that sharpen and refine you. In the next weeks, you will be presented with a myriad of opportunities for clubs, intramural sports, co-curricular programs, and dorm activities. Take time to reflect, journal, weigh the pros and cons and choose those that fit the direction you want your life to take. Balance times of peace and Sabbath with times of study and leisure. “What are you going to have to give up to pursue your calling in life?”[5] You want to be a medical professional? When your friends are taking study breaks to go to the beach, you may need to choose to study another hour. Or to go meet with a professor to talk through that assignment that is giving you a hard time. You see you are growing in a different direction from a friend or significant other; what choices do you make about such relationships to make sure you are intentionally choosing to make space in your life for the relationships that are most edifying? What and whom do you keep in life when is it time to walk down a different path? Do not be afraid to walk away from something you try that you find does not fit; instead walk towards something that is better for you. How do you know what is right and what is not? 

Pursue Truth

Second, you learn this and make more accurate choices sooner by pursuing the truth…not relativism, but a truth that is singular and yet none of us yet perceives in full. You need a willingness to listen to previously excluded facts and ideas that deepen and broaden y\our shared understanding of the truth. You are investing many valuable resources in this higher education experience, and you should eventually graduate as a changed and more fully formed person. Finding truth can be a challenging, scary and significant work. One of the areas that I am continually grappling with is the role that I — as a Caucasian, North American, middle-to-upper class, female, Christian — have to play in issues of poverty, race, oppression and patriarchy both in our country and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a place to which I felt called when I was a child and where my work and research have taken me 15 times in the last 16 years. The truths I have learned in reading, interviews and experiences are complex, contested and messy. But I have found that it is immensely more rewarding and offers a life more free[6] to grapple in the mess and uncertainty than to be blindly part of a system of half-truths that perpetuate the dehumanization and suffering of fellow members of humanity. Be willing to ask and grapple with hard questions and non-neat, grey answers that further expose the whole truth. 

BE CURIOUS

Next, part of pursuing truth in your academic career as well as in life overall is to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity. Do not regard any of the classes you have here at Hope as merely a box to be checked off a list of requirements so you can get a degree. See the amazing opportunity with which you have been presented to take a religion class as an engineering major or an art class as a physics major or a political science class as a dance major. See these as ways to learn about how to think about the world, how to engage in the creation around you, how to think more robustly about the career and vocation to which you are called. Read recommended texts as well as required ones. Look up cross-references and footnotes. Use a dictionary when you do not know a word in your readings. Take extra classes on topics in which you are interested. Own your education! Want to know the truth, the underlying mechanisms of how our created world works. As Einstein said, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” Stay with the questions as long as possible and enjoy the research for that paper, the coming together of that symphony, the elements working towards a chemical reaction… the process of learning. My colleagues and I are here, as eloquently stated by Robert Frost, not just to dispense knowledge, but to awaken you to the knowledge and ideas and questions… but you must pursue these as a curious learner.[7] 

Be Honest and Walk in Humility

Furthermore, this pursuit of truth to which I am calling each of you with intellectual curiosity requires honesty, humility and a willingness to acknowledge your own ignorance.[8] Sometimes this is hard, and sometimes it hurts. Do you know how many students who I meet with at the start of semesters who say, “I am nervous because I have never learned this stuff before”! My response, “Excellent! Then you are getting your money’s worth!” If you already knew everything, then you would be wasting your time here. And what is more, often the things you do not know, you do not realize you do not know them. This uncertainty is thus an exciting opportunity! Some of the most profound, life-shaping and revealing lessons during my undergraduate years felt as if they were peeling away dark glasses from the eyes of my heart and mind. For example, I somewhat accidently was invited to participate in a healing racism institute – and spent eight weeks grappling with how ignorant I was of issues of power, privilege, whiteness and the suffering of people all around me. I was blind, but in being willing to open my eyes and heart and go through the fire of that experience, I began to see a deeper part of our shared truth. That has shaped my life path profoundly. I learned to ask harder questions, to grapple longer and more carefully with potential answers, and to offer grace to myself and those on the journey with me as we continued to realize our ignorance. We often see the fires that are burning, like invisible forms of racism, through the mirrors of curricular and co-curricular experiences in places we may not expect. Be willing to engage humbly with unfamiliar experiences. 

Be willing to learn from places inside and outside of the classroom and from each person you encounter. The learning experience is enhanced when you engage together in honesty and humility regarding what you do and do not know as you pursue truth together. 

Know Yourself — Identities; STrengths & weaknesses

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
—Pema Chodran

To pursue truth and live intentionally with intellectual curiosity, you have to know who you are. Honesty requires you to learn, explore, come to understand who you are – and which parts of your identity are salient under what conditions. Beyond my more obvious identity categories, I am also a wife, twin, Southernor, Texan with Mississippi roots, scholar of Africa, Crossfit coach and athlete, runner, political liberal and conservative, Christian, with Reformed and Catholic and Baptist roots influenced by having lived in the faith cultures of east Africa to name a few. While each of these is part of who I am, when each one matters most or at all changes based on where I am, who I am with, what I am being called to do. What are these identities for you? When do they matter? How do they shape what and how you see the world and your responses, your ability to see the truth and likelihood to act in the settings around you? Because who you are does empower, constrain and frame your ability to see truth and to choose how you act as a result.     

Work Hard… No, I mean REALLY Hard

The sixth take away I would give you is that, to pursue such awareness, to seek truth, to make intentional decisions – these all take really hard work. So I am calling you to work hard. No, I mean REALLY hard. When you believe the relationships or outcomes or activities you are pursuing are those that are part of your calling, they are worth the work – whether they are your favorite class or easiest relationship or not! As you work hard, with the pursuit of truth at your center, you may find that a new direction unfolds that you had not expected. Be willing to do what it takes to learn this new direction. See your job as a college student as something that is worth investing time, thought and your other resources in as you pursue truth and self-understanding. Read your syllabi; do your class readings ahead of time so you have the time and space to reflect and learn from what you are reading; meet with your professors – we are here to support your learning and academic success and want to work as hard as you do for your education. Engage during class with questions and insights. 

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must to the thing you think you cannot do.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

And be willing to work hard when things become really, really hard. Now, to clarify what I mean about working hard and working even harder when you hit bumps or walls in your efforts, my greatest analogy for life is the experience I have had for the last six years as a long-distance endurance runner… 

If I wanted to meet my goals in completing my first marathon… and then my second and all the subsequent ones… if I wanted to shave time off enough to qualify for the historic Boston marathon… if I wanted to train well towards these goals, I had to make intentional choices that were hard and put in the hard work that is endurance training. I had to go to bed early on Friday nights when my husband and friends were starting a late night movie. I was up sometimes as early as 5 a.m. on a Saturday to fit in 18–20 mile training runs. Wednesday nights have become speedwork nights — a time to push my body until my lungs want to explode and legs demand I stop — and yet I keep going — even though it is really hard… the hard work is necessary to be prepared for the races ahead. Many of my closest friends became those pursuing the same goals, so we orient our lives around the same priorities and come along side each other in meeting those goals. 

Equally hard are the races that come after the training. Somewhere between miles 18–21, a marathon starts to feel really difficult. Your body is tired, and your mind starts to play with your heart. The race becomes really, really hard work — mentally, emotionally and physically. I have heard it said that a marathon has two halves — the first 20 miles and the last six. Your college journey as well as the rest of your life will have such times of hard work, that last six miles. Maybe it will be the next few weeks as you adjust to being away from home, learn to interact with classmates or hallmates from different cultures, develop new study skills to succeed at the higher level of academic rigor offered by college, figure out how to juggle the demands of being first a full-time student with your other activities, jobs and friends, or push through to the finish line that is exam week! These experiences and others in your life will require intentional decisions built on raw hard work. And sometimes, as in running, the outcome still will not be what you had hoped or expected. A race that was meant to be a personal best or a qualifying event may find you limping with an injury, or slowed to a walk due to starting too fast or hot weather…

Sometimes you push through to the outcome you set out to attain, and other times you have to turn another direction. For example, when I was prevented from finishing the 2013 Boston marathon due to the bombings… having run all but half a mile on an injured knee, in excruciating pain, doing so because it was such an important event to have qualified for… and I only did so for that finish… I was left further injured and never have regained my full speed or capacity and was part of a horrible event.

I have spent the last two years relearning who I am as a runner — a little slower, plagued with minor yet chronic injuries, unable for a few months last year to run at all. But from April 15, 2013 to now, this reorienting, with intentional attention to the experiences and lessons I have encountered has made me wiser, brought me more peace and sense of the created self God calls me to be. I have intentionally chosen to learn from the experiences of that day and the two years that have followed. I met some incredible new friends through our shared experiences, and returned in 2014 (which you can see in the pictures that will be posted with this speech’s transcript online) — stronger and wiser in many ways — to reclaim the finish and reconcile the pain of running an unfinished race.[9] Perhaps for you hard experiences will lead you to new paths in your major midway through your college career, or seeking out new activities when the sport you are playing no longer fits your goals or investing in new friendships or activities in your second, third or even fourth year at Hope because you are carefully and attentively choosing to engage with the people and experiences that fit your goals and calling. These decisions and new understandings are hard, but the hard work is worth it. 

Grace

And my last thought with which to leave you is — Grace. As you pursue truth, living a wild life with attention and intentionality, seeking to truly know yourself, you must offer yourself and others grace[10]. From the Greek, grace means kindness, and I have always learned it to mean “unmerited favor.” That which we do not deserve. Across the readings I have done on grace, however, a rigid definition is hardly possible. Throughout Scripture, it seems that in almost every case where the word “grace” is found, the grace we need is built on the idea that all each person is or has or does is founded in God and Christ, and depends on God through Christ.[11] Even in the hardest situations, grace is there, often coming “in the silence, in the dark… a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.”[12] In a phrase, I believe that life requires receiving and giving grace abundantly, allowing it to seep in from those around us and living life more fully when we release ourselves from the crushing weight of anger, resentment or deep scars by extending grace with fervor to those around us. I pray you will extend to yourself and others this unearned favor… this grace, as you begin your college journey. 

So to you, my newest fellow Hope College community members, embrace the opportunities that are being opened to you with a deep sense of gratefulness, a willingness to work very hard, a sincere, honest and humble pursuit of truth, intellectual curiosity and all this shrouded with profound grace. Pay attention to live a truly intentional wild life! 

 

[1] “That Summer Day;” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 - 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

[2] http://www.hope.edu/academic/gened/faculty_resources/global_learning_def.html

[3] https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html

[4] Excerpts from “A Psalm of Life”

[5] Dr. Jenny Everts, Fall 2009, FYS lecture

[6] John 8:32 – “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

[7] “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” – Robert Frost

[8] Micah 6:8 - He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you; but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

[9] 1 Corinthians 9:24 - Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.; Hebrews 12:1-3: 12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

[10] 2 Peter 1:2 - May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

2 Corinthians 12: 8-9 - Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

[11] Burton Scott. “Grace” http://www.bible-researcher.com/grace.html

[12] Anne LamottGrace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith