Honors Convocation Address
April 18, 2012
Good evening. Thanks, Jeff.
Before I begin my prepared remarks, which are addressed largely to the students, I want to take a moment to say thank you to the faculty. As you all filed in, in your caps and gowns which have always made my heart thrill, I saw many faces which have grown familiar over my years here—people who have poured into me and helped me learn and love subjects and disciplines I never knew I would. So to all of you, thank you very much. I am grateful.
So! Congratulations are in order. This is a night of celebration, and rightfully so. To the seniors especially: we’ve made it! (Well, almost.) Graduation is a month away—sorry if that’s terrifying—and it’s exciting to have made it to this point. So congratulations. You’ve made it through four years of homework, papers, exams, floor dates, and Michigan winters. You should be commended!
And for those of you graduating with honors, additional congratulations. That takes a lot of diligence and hard work, and you should be commended for that labor. So congrats, and thank you for pursuing truth and excellence in your academic work.
We’re here tonight to celebrate academic achievement. Calvin is an excellent institution of higher education, so that is certainly appropriate. But Calvin is also a Christian school, and that means that this celebration should look a little distinct. After all, we serve the God who called the little children to come to Him and said that they, in their innocent faith, understood the Kingdom of Heaven in a way that the well-educated teachers of the law couldn’t. And that matters, I think, for the way we think about our academics here, particularly on this night when we celebrate high achievement.
The honors and excellences being celebrated here tonight matter, but not really for their own sake. Hopefully, the work required to receive these distinctions—graduating with honors, making the deans’ list, and so on—has formed good habits in us, has shaped us into people who love and seek earnestly after the truth. Hopefully your years at Calvin have made you into a thinker, into someone who’s not easily satisfied with the way the world seems to be, into someone who pursues truth and justice and wholeness with an integrity and intensity that is enabled by your knowledge and education. The honors convocation ought not only celebrate brilliant scholarship, though that certainly has a place here. This celebration ought to remind us that we who have received amazing educations now need to go and use them well. We who have labored diligently for four years over papers and research projects and specimens in the lab now ought to go out from this place ready to labor diligently and excellently for the Kingdom of God. We who have dug deep and asked hard questions and refused to be satisfied by surface-level answers ought to live with similar integrity and curiosity in the world we enter upon leaving this place. We ought to celebrate the fact that our academic achievement has been good preparation, in many ways, to be disciples and Kingdom-revealers in the world.
But we ought to remember, too, that the Kingdom belongs to the little children, and education isn’t quite everything. But don’t be afraid of that. In all your education, and with all your smarts, don’t be afraid to ask simple questions and wonder at the world around you and be honest and vulnerable and pure in heart. Use your gifts and your education well. Understand this world deeply, and don’t be satisfied by brokenness and half-truths; probe deeper. But don’t let it jade you. Don’t forget that this celebration, this academic achievement—as excellent as it is—is not the end, not the goal. The Kingdom of God is.
I remember quite vividly one of those moments when this became real to me. I was studying abroad in a small, rural town in Romania, working with a community development organization that is building social capital in youth through outdoor adventure education and service-learning. And I felt prepared, going into it. I’d written tons of papers on Eastern European politics and history in my International Relations courses; I’d read up on international development theorists like Francis Fukuyama and Martha Nussbaum; and I’d been in Romania for two months already, living with a host family and taking classes from the founders and directors of this NGO. And yet I was frustrated, because I did not see it connecting.
So one day, as I was walking up the mountain to my host family’s farm, rocks in hand to protect me from stray dogs, it hit me. In all my classes, and all my expectations, development work had been rather glamorous. Not easy, not simple—I wasn’t thinking that. But I didn’t expect it to look quite like it did: like sitting in a freezing cold room with 15 hormonal teenagers for five hours a week, playing games in a language I couldn’t really understand. I didn’t expect it to be so seemingly hopeless sometimes—so repetitive, so frustrating, so little evidence of change. I knew it would be hard, but my classroom learning hadn’t given me the wisdom yet that I learned in that semester abroad. In my time in Romania, honestly, I learned endurance, and I learned the practical application of my theoretical education. I learned that the work of the Kingdom of God is sometimes, honestly, mindnumbingly dull, and that sometimes kids understand the Kingdom way better than those of us who are busily looking for some theoretical paradigm through which to understand it.
When I would stop and look at the big picture, what happened in Romania was exciting—I could identify conversations and moments where kids were living out moral truths and civic virtues that were countercultural and world-changing. But most of the time, it was far more mundane than that. My education at Calvin had taught me to think big, and I clung to that when the truth on the ground seemed awfully small. But that small truth was real and it mattered, far more than the papers I had written. Education had helped get me excited, and helped sustain my vision for development work when the point seemed rather obscured. But on its own, my education in the classroom—as wonderful as it was—wouldn’t have been complete without that realization on my long walk home. It wouldn’t have been complete if I had been allowed to stay in the realm of tidy, satisfying theory. It had to prove its grit in a world that is broken, not glamorous, cold, and confusing. And thanks be to God that it could, and that He is at work in all sorts of surprising ways that we can’t always prepare for in the classroom.
I’d like to end with one more anecdote and word of thanks to one of my professors. One day I was feeling particularly gloomy about the state of the world—international relations can do that to you. In particular, I was saddened by the reality of war, and by the seeming impossibility of changing the systems of governance I found myself studying. But as I talked to my professor, he said something that literally has saved me from cynicism over and over again. He said something like, “Kelly, maybe Christian hope means that we believe in a realism that’s even more real than the reality that we see in front of us. Maybe we can’t see the reality of the Kingdom of God yet, but we’re promised that with faith, mountains can fall into the sea. Isn’t that a stronger reality?”
And that encouraged me more than Professor Cioffi probably could have ever known. But I bring it up now not only to say thanks to him, but because it’s my hope for you all. May you believe in a reality that is better than the one we see and study. May you know this reality inside and out, and be active in its restoration. But may this present reality never capture your imagination entirely. May you always have hope, and may you live in light of that hope. May the academic achievements we celebrate today enable you to do that well, here at Calvin and once you leave.