Remember Whose You Are

Prepared remarks by Wayne Brouwer, Associate Professor of Religion

Sunday, May 8, 2016
Ray and Sue Smith Stadium
Holland, Michigan

President Knapp, Members of the Hope College Board of Trustees, Faculty Colleagues, Parents, Relatives and Friends, and especially you honored 2016 Hope College graduates… Congratulations! What a day!

And now the next steps… Graduate school! Gap year! Internship! A real job! Moving back home! And for some of you, I know, marriage!

One couple who got married right out of college had a wonderful honeymoon at a Caribbean island resort. Then they went home to set up their new domestic world. They agreed to work from their strengths, and she liked to cook and he couldn’t, so meal preparation was her domain.

The first breakfast she made was perfect! Eggs fried beautifully. Bacon crisp but not burned. Toast lightly browned. Coffee brewed with a French press. Even fresh flowers on the table, with cloth napkins!

She was excited as he came down to the table. Perfection! But all he did was shake his head and mutter, “Not like my mom used to make it!”

She couldn’t believe it! She was angry! But she was also in love, so she bit her tongue and played nice, and got through the day. The next morning she was determined to do better. She outdid yesterday’s perfection. A western omelet, nicely fluffy with a little cheese oozing out. Fresh squeezed orange juice. Marmalade from the Farmer’s Market. It was a breakfast fit for the cover of Food Magazine! He had to love it, and love her even more with a breakfast like this!

But his face told a different story. A look of concern. A shake of the head. Not even a first bite before he said again, “Not like my mom used to make!”

Now she was seething! This marriage was in danger, and it wasn’t even a month old!

She was tired of playing house already, so the next morning she fixed things in a way that would keep her out of the kitchen forever. She fried one egg rubbery, and cracked another directly onto the plate without cooking it. She didn’t stir the oatmeal, and it became nothing but chunks and lumps. The bacon was half-in, half-out of the frying pan, so part was charred and the rest was slippery and gooey and uncooked. The toast was a burnt offering!

She meanly anticipated his face when first seeing this mess! And then came the surprise. He lit up like Christmas! “Just like my mom used to make it!” he shouted.

It doesn’t take long for us to establish our context and culture. As children we may be mostly open and future oriented, with few memories and only the present to enjoy. Roy Drusky put it like this in his nostalgic song:

I’ve been up and I’ve been down
I’ve worked the fields, I’ve plowed the ground
I’ve born the strain and pressure
Till I thought I might explode

Now I yearn for childhood days
Of model planes and lemonade
When the day stretched out before me
Like a long, long Texas road

Yes, that long, long Texas road’s ‘bout a million miles or so
When you're just a child there ain't no time but now
Must have left that long old road seven hundred years ago
And I'd find it once again if I knew how [1]

We know what he’s talking about, don’t we?! Every day is a new adventure, with no past and no future.

But then we grow older, and we learn to anticipate. And that’s where you are today, isn’t it? The future beckons! Jobs! Careers! Graduate school! Travel! Gap year! Marriage!

Suddenly your whole life lies in the future! I can’t wait!

What I would like to encourage in you today, as you launch into this wide-open future, is to enjoy the great long, long Texas roads of the present, and live for all of those future expectations that pull and entice and call and beckon, but also to remember the past. Remember who you are, as you live and love and laugh. But also remember whose you are. Remember that you did not spring into this world by yourselves. Remember that you are shaped in a context. Remember that you are an accumulation of people and ideas and values that have been poured into you with love and hope. As Jewel sings in her autobiographical reminisces:

I am my father's daughter
I have his eyes
I am the product of his sacrifice
I am the accumulation of the dreams of generations
And their stories live in me like holy water
I am my father's daughter [2]

This is what Moses has in mind on his last nights with Israel. 120 years old, and he’s sharp as a tack. They’ve been together for 40 years. He’s the only leader and guide they’ve ever known. And now he’s leaving them, going to die. And they will move on. The door to the future is open.

There is much to anticipate, much to fear, much to get excited about. Then, in the precise moment of a marvelous present, and in these days of an open and expanding future, this is what Moses says: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

Good advice for Israel. And good advice for us. On this day of open doors and future orientation, why should we remember the past? For at least three reasons.

First, our identities, your identities, are as shallow as an overnight rain puddle, as vapid as a magnesium flash, if they are not tied to our pasts. Many of you have taken IDS 200 “Encounter with Cultures” as part of your Phelps Scholars or Education programs. One of the key assignments in that course, no matter which professor, was to research the culture of your own family heritage. Go back at least three generations, and find out where your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents came from. The point of that assignment, and dozens of others scattered across the disciplines, was simple. You do not exist in a vacuum. You are not the center of the universe. You are part of the continuity of human life that meanders through time. You are important, but you are also connected.

Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian singer-songwriter captured it well in his song, “Did she mention my name?”

It's so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day
And talk about the home town a million miles away
Is the ice still on the river, are the old folks still the same
And by the way, did she mention my name

Did she mention my name just in passing
And when the morning came, do you remember if she dropped a name or two
Is the home team still on fire, do they still win all the games
And by the way, did she mention my name

Is the landlord still a loser, do his signs hang in the hall
Are the young girls still as pretty in the city in the fall
Does the laughter on their faces still put the sun to shame
And by the way, did she mention my name

Did she mention my name just in passing
And looking at the rain, do you remember if she dropped a name or two
Won't you say hello from someone, they'll be no need to explain
And by the way, did she mention my name [3]

Those who surround you today have a stake in your life, just as you do in theirs. When I neared the end of one of my Masters programs, I mentioned to my parents that I was so glad to be done with it that I didn’t think I would participate in the graduation ceremonies. My mom said, “Well, we’re going to be there, so it would be nice if you were too!” I didn’t get my education on my own; my family had a part in it. And, believe it or not, we professors actually have an investment in you as well. We are all too well aware, as the events of these past weeks have made clear here on the Hope College campus, that none of us is indispensable; we can lose our jobs in an instant. Yet we believe that we have a purpose here, a stake in your lives. And your success today is, in part, our mutual success. The future is open to you because we believe that the wisdom of the past and the people who have gone before have provided a platform on which to stand and walk and run and soar.

When Robert Hooke complimented his friend Isaac Newton about Newton’s brilliance, Newton wrote back, identifying some of the greats of his past from whom he had learned much (you might say, his college education). Then he commented, “If I have been able to see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” So your education here; yes, you are the brightest and best and wisest that this world has ever seen. But never forget that you can see further than all of us old people because you have been standing on our shoulders, and those of generations that have come before. So Moses was right, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

The second reason that we should remember the past is that our values are moored there somewhere. We have recently asked you to write your “Worldview” paper for your Senior Seminar. What did you say? That you are the first in the world to see things truly and rightly? That no one else has ever had these values before you?

No, you tied your worldview to themes and traditions and values that have proven trustworthy over time. A terrible story from a community east of here some years ago. It was winter, and a girl and boy, she 11 and he 9, sister and brother, were testing the ice on a pond. They slid. They laughed. They challenged one another to go out a bit further.

But the ice wasn’t strong enough, and they were not yet wise enough to know it. CRACK! Suddenly they plunged through. Shouting and freezing, their plight caught the attention of a passerby. He tried a rescue but the thin and cracked ice would not hold his weight. He found a branch, and extended it toward the boy. And here is where the horrible story becomes astounding. Because the boy, 9 years old, freezing and drowning, shouted, “Save Annette! Not me! Save my sister!”

So the man pushed the branch to Annette, and she grabbed it, and was pulled to safety. And when they turned round to save her brother, he was gone. Drowned.

Terrible story. But here is the thing that continues to haunt me: where would a boy, 9 years old, get the presence of mind, drowning and freezing, to tell his would-be rescuer, “No! Don’t save me! Save my sister! Save Annette!”

I don’t know anything about that boy. I don’t know anything about that family. And yet I do, and so do you. Because somewhere along the line, that boy and that girl sat at a meal table with parents who talked about rights and wrongs, about good and bad, about care and commitment, about being the kind of people we can be, we should be. These two became the people they were, even at their young ages, by gathering into themselves a past that was bigger than either of them. “Remember the days of old,” said Moses. “Consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.” You know it’s true.

When Margaret Mead, the great cultural anthropologist, was speaking at a university, years ago, a student stepped to the mic in the question time following her lecture. “Ms. Mead,” he asked, “what do you believe is the first sign of civilization in any society?” There were a number of possible answers, of course. Maybe the creation of tools and utensils; perhaps the domestication of animals; possibly some early evidence of language skills.

But Margaret Mead’s answer surprised the university community. “I believe,” she said, “the first sign of civilization in any society is the presence of a healed femur.” A healed femur?

“You see,” she went on, “the law of the jungle is this: ‘You fall, you die!’ And when your femur breaks, you are stopped where you are. Death is imminent. The wild beasts will have you for dinner. And if, by some miracle, you survive a night, thirst and hunger will destroy your body. So if there is indication of a broken femur that has healed, it means that someone, at great threat to her own life, stayed next to the one who fell, brought water, fought back predators, foraged for food for two, dragged the injured person to safety, and looked after him until he was healed. The first sign of civilization is a healed femur.”

She’s right! In our dog-eat-dog world, where the strong are prized and the weaklings are abandoned, there is something of civilization that only shows through when femurs are healed, and children’s lives are valued, and the marginalized are given a voice, and the refugee finds hospitality. Have you learned anything here at Hope College? Do you have values that matter? Are you a civilized person? If you are fascinated only by your current joys and desires, if you are mesmerized only by your needs and your future possibilities, you are not truly a Hope person!

Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte, whose body is buried just over there, struggled to guide his immigrant community through its first harsh winter. One Sunday, while leading worship at Pillar Church, he was praying for the families of those who had died of disease and exposure during the past week. The list was long and the community was traumatized by death. Breaking the orderly decorum of the stiff Calvinist liturgy, he suddenly cried out, “Oh God! Must we all perish?!” [4]

Hope College is an outcome of that wicked time. Van Raalte established the Pioneer School as a testimony and trust that not all would perish, and that among the survivors of this harsh place would be those who would learn the lessons of the past and lead the community into a new future. So here you are. With your history degrees, and your nursing degrees, and your education degrees, and your chemistry degrees, and your philosophy degrees. “Consider the generations past…” Remember whose you are. Your future awaits, but your morality is established in the past.

One more thing. Our faith is tied to the past. However we view faith. Whatever we might think about religion. Because all of us are religious. No, I’m not saying that we are all Christian, or even that those of us who are Christian are Christian in the same way.

But we are all religious because we all have faith. We have faith in God or we have faith in ourselves. We believe this world is the work of a Creator or we believe that this world self-generated. We believe that Jesus is the Christ or we believe that he was a person of significance in human history. We have faith.

We have faith because we cannot find all of the answers to meaning entirely on our own or within our personal range of experiences. We entered existence after it had been happening for quite a while, and we cannot prove what or Who originated it. The future beyond our lives here is, as Shakespeare called it, “the undiscovered country,” from which no traveler has returned. So we believe.

And Hope College lives and breathes with the idea that faith matters. Because faith links us to both the past and the future, while giving us meaning and purpose in the present. Especially as we have to make choices and establish goals and invest in our societies. Alan Paton is one of our global “fathers” who reminded us of that. Wrestling with a racialized world in South Africa, we remember him best for his loving and pained voice in Cry, the Beloved Country. But when success could have rerouted his life into the isolation and insulation of wealth, he continued to find his purpose in the grand past of God. His 1981 novel Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful! still guides us with faith’s wisdom. [5]

Robert Mansfield is a timid school headmaster as the separations of Apartheid are dividing South African society. By his own admission he’s not a political man. Yet these rules, about which students can compete in sporting events, and which schools get to play against which rankle him badly. Against the advice of family and friends, he refuses to implement the new policies. So he is forced to resign his position and becomes isolated from his community. Alone and doubting, Mansfield struggles. The only person he sees is Emmanuel Nene, the messenger of the court. Emmanuel Nene is not supposed to speak with Robert Mansfield, but he chooses to do so anyway. He wants to get to know this one who defies the government at the expense of his own security and comfort. So Emmanuel Nene begins to have small conversations with Robert Mansfield. Though they are not friends, they become friendly.

And then, one day, Emmanuel Nene asks the question. “Why did you do it?” Why did you defy the government? Why did you put yourself at risk when you didn’t have to?

And Robert Mansfield looks down. He shrugs his shoulders. He is uncertain. “I can’t really say…”

But Emmanuel Nene knows. He says, “I know why you did it. You and I both know why. We think our lives here are important,” he says, “and they are. But one day, some day, you and I know that we will cross over, and we will meet our Lord face to face. He will welcome us home with a smile and open arms. And we will see his scars, the wounds of the cross, the reminders of his sacrifice. And we will thank him.

“And then, with a gentle voice, he will ask if he can see our scars. And we will be perplexed. ‘Were your wounds not enough?’ we will ask him. ‘Is our salvation not complete by what you have done?’

“He will nod, and he will smile. And then a tear will run down his cheek. And with a wistful choke in his voice, he will ask, ‘But was there nothing to fight for?’”

Was there nothing to fight for?

Today you own the world. But tomorrow, when it is back to normal life, remember who you are. And, more importantly, remember whose you are. “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). You will find your best identity. You will find your morality. You will find your faith. You will find your Hope!


  2. Written by Lisa Carver and Jewel Kilcher
  3. Gordon Lightfoot, 1968
  4. Gordon Spykman, Pioneer Preacher (Heritage Hall Publications, 1976)
  5. Paraphrased from Alan Paton, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982), pages 66-67