Engagement Rules - Convocation 2011
Convocation Address: September 2, 2011
President Steven Timmermans, Ph.D.
Welcome to Convocation, 2011. And a particularly warm welcome to the class of 2015 as you begin your journey here.
My theme this morning arises from the chapel theme of this year: Beauty and Brokenness. Throughout this year, on Wednesday and Friday mornings at 10 a.m., you’ll have the opportunity to worship as the messages will take note, in a variety of ways, that beauty and brokenness are all around and in us. God’s gift and call to us in Christ both allows us and compels us to address all of it--with great hope and tension.
This morning I will share with you two stories as a way to help you begin your journey here--as you begin to write your story—in and for a world filled with beauty and brokeness. The first story relates to the tradition in which this College has been founded; the second story is more personal.
The Reformed tradition in which this College was founded is a tradition shaped by Biblical understandings as well as influenced by sociological and cultural factors. It’s a sometimes healthy but at times unhealthy pairing that happens with many traditions: Swedish Covenanters, German Lutherans, African-American Baptists, Scottish Presbyterians, and the like. You see, the Reformed tradition of which this College is a part was originally carried to America by Dutch immigrants. Check out many of our buildings: Tibstra Hall, Molenhouse Center, Huizenga Library, Ozinga Chapel, and even the new DeVos Gymnasium in the TARC…those are Dutch names. (I’m glad we still have the Mitchell gymnasium!)
Many immigrant communities in the United States, in their early histories, clung to the identity of their home country and remained separate by means of geographical clustering while centering around their faith. The Reformed Dutch in America worked at this separateness and clustering with gusto and careful engineering—sort of like they were building a series of fail-proof social (instead of earthen) dikes in the new world. If you come from one of these communities, you probably see some of this “separation” even today; you can identify it almost immediately in the overuse of the word “our,” the possessive case of the pronoun we, as in “our bakery, our school, our people.” There might even be a specific funeral home for “our people” in your community.
Let me quickly point out that Reformed Dutch Americans are not the only ones to engage in such behavior. Often times, groups draw tightly together, identifying “our neighborhood, our stores” because of the fearfulness that accompanies an immigrant. Sometimes, however, this dynamic occurs because of discrimination or persecution groups have felt in their history; think with me of African-Americans, Native Americans, and Jewish-Americans. While they may long for full integration in society, for a variety of reasons, they remain separated due to lack of access or for reasons of self-survival.
But back to Reformed Dutch Americans—a legacy of separateness due to immigrant, sociological factors. And, for a time, this separation was also rooted in Biblical understandings. They read the parts of the Bible that pulled them out of the world. The world was a bad place, so faithfulness required no movies, no card playing, and no dancing. If you couldn’t play cards, it was pretty hard to socialize with your more American neighbors, and if you didn’t see the latest Grace Kelly or John Wayne movie, it was pretty hard to chat about the latest movie with your more American fellow students. So it was easy to remain separate…and justify it on Biblical grounds.
Maybe you come from a home or community where it still feels this way. Or maybe you find this bit of history wild and crazy—and nearly impossible to fully understand since you are fully involved in contemporary life—its music, its dress, its values. Either way, or somewhere in between, stick with me, for there’s more to the story.
After the end of World War II, now two or three generations or more past immigration, the Reformed Dutch American community had some new people arrive on the scene: a new wave of Dutch immigrants who had left the Netherlands after Hitler’s troops had ravaged their country. With them, they carried some new understandings, shaped by a number of factors. I’ll mention just two. First, a handful of decades before World War II, they had a prime minister in their country who was also a theologian. Rather than leading both believers and the country into separatism, he spoke of engagement—engaging the world because the world is God’s. His name is Abraham Kuyper, and you’ll hear his name and ideas around here from time to time. Anyhow, this new wave of Dutch immigrants brought a rallying cry of “participate or engage in the world” and they based it on sound Biblical principles. I think, too, there was a second reason for their differing perspective. They had seen the bad—the very bad—the bad that meant hunger, loss of dignity, and shipment of their Jewish friends to mass extermination in the concentration camps. In the face of such terrible things, one has to be honest with oneself and one’s Biblical interpretation. Silence and separation just doesn’t cut it. Christians must speak-out; they must become engaged in society. For if they remain silent and separate, God’s world is abandoned to Satan’s awful ways. Brokenness wins.
That, in a nutshell, is some of the historical story that gives rise to Trinity—a story that includes a community initially defined by being separate, but in the decade just prior to the College’s actual founding, a community that began to understand that Christians must engage the world. And today, we offer dozens of majors and programs to help you do just that.
Now, my second story, a more personal story, I tell to help illustrate both the extent to which we need to engage the world and the guidelines needed in doing so. I hope, too, in this story, you’ll begin to understand that the title of this talk, Engagement Rules, is not a series of guidelines for buying a diamond and popping the question, but rather it is advice for stepping into the messiness of this broken world—yet a world that is God’s.
I already mentioned Hitler this morning. The destruction and brokenness caused by this one person is nearly unimaginable. But we would be sadly mistaken if we thought large scale brokenness and misery was absent from the contemporary scene. Let me bring our attention to just one corner of the world: the Horn of Africa, with the countries of Ethiopia, Somali, and Eretria. Before startling new reports arrived this summer about a new concern in the Horn of Africa, you maybe didn’t know the earlier concern: For example, that the country of Ethiopia has thousands, and some say more than a million, of children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Just to wrap our heads around that, let’s say they were all going to come to Chicago because new families were waiting for them. It would take 23,000 school buses just to pick them up at O’hare’s international terminal! That’s how many kids are parentless just in one country alone! And now, due to both avoidable factors and unavoidable factors, the country of Somalia is suffering from a terrible drought. The World Food Program estimates that 10 million people already need humanitarian aid. The U.N. Children’s Fund estimates that more than two million children are malnourished and in need of lifesaving action.
We cannot hide our faces from these kinds of problems. Certainly, the reason you’re at Trinity is to prepare to become engaged in addressing the brokenness of God’s world, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help bring about God’s goodness and rule. While there are many ways to do this, my wife—Nursing Professor Barb Timmermans—and I sought the pathway of adoption. And let me quickly add that while the story I’m going to tell is our story, many share in similar stories: Basketball coach Brandon Nichols and his wife adopted a child from Ethiopia a year and a half ago; Registrar Chris Huang and his wife are waiting to go to Ethiopia and adopt into their home an Ethiopian child. But back to our story.
We brought our boys—brothers Getenet and Fekadu—home a year ago TODAY. In the days and months leading up to the adoption, we asked ourselves more than once whether we were crazy. With our four biological kids being between the ages 19 and 26, we were on the verge of being empty nesters—one of two times in life that freedom awaits with joy and anticipation. (The other time, by the way, is going off to college!) But God’s call, in hindsight, was shaped by the Holy Spirit working through the influence of life-long friends and other friends we had met when Barb was in graduate school in New Mexico. Christian friends, friends who knew adoption and knew Ethiopia.
I believe we entered into adoption and have been exceedingly blessed by this adoption because of the way we heard God’s call—through the influence of these Christian friends. The first guideline—or the engagement rule—I offer to you is this: in pursuing God’s call to engage a broken world, make sure you’re listening to Christian friends, for God will speak to you through them. What kind of friends? Friends who know you, your strengths and weaknesses, friends that are in-tune with the Spirit. Where will you find these friends? Here at Trinity; they’ll be with you in your Christian journey for decades ahead. Find them, too, at church. And be a good friend too, a friend that the Holy Spirit uses. If you’re doing this, you’ll avoid the pitfalls: solo decision making, thinking you know God’s will all by yourself. That’s the pathway of self-delusion, a pathway that will pull you away from faithfulness.
A second guideline or rule for engagement is to look for signs of God’s presence—and once found, join in his work. Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God, says: Find out where God is at work and join Him there. While the battlefield may be littered with destruction, look for evidence of God’s grace and presence, because no matter what you’re called to do, you will need to do it as part of God’s work, not your own. We saw it initially and now even more clearly that by working with Bethany Christian Services and their Ethiopian partner orphanage, Yezelalem Minch, we were stepping into a setting that God already had in his embrace. It truly was God’s good work—his grace—that has allowed this Christian orphanage and the children it cared for to prosper. For the seven years our boys were without parents, they still had family—both in how they were housed in a small family unit by the orphanage and by the loving care they received. Moreover, they had Christian schooling by being part of the orphanage—education that was not only better than the local government school, but education where Christ was central in all of their learning and development. Yes, as you step into the brokenness of God’s world, look for signs of his presence, and jump on board. Like my previous guideline, avoid the temptation to fly solo. It’s far better to join God’s work already begun by God’s people.
A third guideline relates to expectations. Expect God’s goodness, which isn’t the same as a good time. Let me explain. Stepping into the messiness of a broken world can be difficult and discouraging. It can open doors to new problems and resurrect old problems. So don’t expect everything is going to be easy and comfortable. Instead, if you need expectations, set your eyes on God and his things. You’ll experience his presence and peace. Back to our story. Adopting a pre-teen and a teen hasn’t been without challenge. But we try not to make our expectation set focused just there (ask any parent of pre-teens and teens). Instead, it’s the little signs of God’s blessings—sometimes more at the edges than it at the center-- that fill us with joy. For example, it was a sign of God’s goodness and blessing when, a few weeks back, we traveled to New Mexico where 20 of the kids, mostly teens now, from the Yezelalem Minch orphanage all traveled with their adoptive parents for a reunion. It was important for the kids—they had a great time—but it was also so very good for us parents, as we talked together, shared stories, and supported each other. While there were just a few tears of frustration, most of the tears were tears of joy. Another example, also just a few weeks ago, when our oldest biological daughter said, somewhat out of the blue, “I know this sounds corny Dad, but with this adoption, if feels like our family is now finally complete.” That wasn’t just her testimony, but the testimony of God’s blessing.
That’s just a little bit of our story. But as this academic year begins, I’d like you to focus on your story—your story already written and yet to be written. Whether your past story is one of separateness or involvement, it’s time to turn your story toward engagement as you prepare for a calling, just as the tradition that has shaped Trinity Christian College changed from seeking to be separate from the world to one of engaging the world in and through the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Remember my engagement rules: listen as God speaks to you through Christian friends, look for signs of God’s presence and then jump in, and don’t expect a good time; instead, expect God’s goodness.
If you and I continue this journey in faithful ways, using these few insights and all of the other things you’ll learn at Trinity, then faithful and Godly engagement will truly rule!
 Stepick, A. (2005). God is apparently not dead: The obvious, the emergent, and the still unknown in immigration and religion. In Leonard, K., Stepick, A., Vasquez, M. & Holdaway, J (Eds.) Immigrant Faiths: Transforming religious life in America. New York: Altamira Press.