Essay

Jane Zwart: In on the Miracle

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I’m back today and was ready to blog, but I got a better offer.  My dear friend and colleague, Jane Zwart, was Calvin’s commencement speaker recently–and there have been many requests for a copy of her incredibly wise and beautiful speech.  I thought this might be the ideal place to put it.

By the way–if Jeff’s blog yesterday makes you yearn for a multi-party system, get ye to a television, and watch the Danish series, Borgen. It’s finally available from Netflix (DVD option) or iTunes–and it’s the best tv show I’ve seen in years.  You won’t regret it (except in the sense that Birgitte Nyborg cannot be our president!)

In on the Miracle
Calvin College Commencement Address
May 2016
Jane Zwart

Thank you, President Le Roy, for such a kind introduction. I also want to thank you and the Board of Trustees for asking me to speak to the class of 2016 this afternoon; I am grateful for so many of the graduates, and I’m grateful for you as a board, too.

Thank you, Provost Brandsen and gentle colleagues. You also happen to be brilliant and faithful and generous colleagues, and working alongside you humbles and inspires me again and again.

Thank you, cheering section—not mine (although I do appreciate the six of you deeply), but the graduates’—by which I mean all of you sitting in the bleachers and unreserved seats, rubbernecking to see your kid or parent or grandchild or godchild, your spouse or sibling or friend or, in my grandma’s parlance, your “special friend.”  Whatever the relationship between you and the ones you came to celebrate, I trust that they know that you’ve been cheering them on for a while now, maybe even for a longer time than they’ve drawn breath.

Most of all: thank you, dear class of 2016.  I am so proud of you and so proud for you.  We all are.  In fact, when, in a little while, you walk up to the front, it won’t just be your relatives who will have to stifle the urge to shout “That’s my so-and-so!”  It’ll be your profs, too. And it will continue to be like that even years from now.  We’ll sit in the stands and want to claim you, to announce that the good that you’ll do is the good we knew you had in you.

Okay.  I’m almost done with the thank-yous.  But not quite.
Thank you to Calvin College’s class of 1966.
Actually, I owe the heritage class, some of whom are sitting opposite me, a huge debt of gratitude.

Here’s why: I enlisted their help to write this speech.  Months ago, I wrote to them—all of them—to ask what advice they just now would give their graduating selves just then.  And they wrote back, naming the wisdom or virtue or habit that they’d put to their capped-and-gowned selves: so many of them.

Which is why I’ve had to abridge—and that’s too bad because in the crop of letters I got from those 50 years in front of you were testimonies that would strengthen and hearten you.  So let’s say that I owe you graduates a letter sometime.  Seriously.  That, after all, is the only way I could begin to repay those who trusted me with their stories—and the morals of their stories.

For the moment, though, I want to name five unmistakable things the class of 1966 wants for you graduates—and, when it comes to perspective, they could best either of us, so you should listen:

  • They want you to match your convictions to your humility, and vice versa.
  • They want you to be unafraid: to get your passport and to frequent the movies and to listen, without interruption, to people whose stories you can’t fathom.
  • They want you to know that—and I quote—“it’s not the advice we get that moves us to live the life we live or do the work we end up doing.  It’s a not-so-predictable, complicated combination of preparedness, timing, brains, brawn, opportunity, defeat, guts, fear, optimism, mistakes, and resiliency. […] This not-so-predictable, complicated combination [is] the Holy Spirit at work.  No advice required.”
  • They want you to tithe.
  • They want you to trust that the grace God has in store for you is immeasurably greater than the grace you could think to ask for.

Well, I am ready to second every one of the things that the class of 1966 wants for you, the class of 2016.

But I also want to name the hope that lies behind everything the heritage class and your dear ones and those of us working at Calvin want for you.  (And for those of you who, in English 101, I badgered about your thesis statements—which is to say, taught—here’s this speech’s thesis statement, a little bit late): we want you to be in on the miracle.

Of course, “miracle” is one of those words that people tend to use too casually.  I know I have.  For example, I once pulled a fractured candy cane out from between our couch cushions and proclaimed it “a Christmas miracle.”  Which—when you think about the Christmas miracle—the incarnation—was an awfully glib thing to say.  But I caught myself too late, as can happen when you’re speaking only to be thought clever.

All that said, the problem isn’t that we apply the word “miracle” to things too small to warrant the term.  Rather, the problem comes when we use a holy word flippantly.

Because of course small things do belong to the miraculous.  Everything from sub-atomic particles on up belong to the miracle—which means that you have no excuse not to be in on it.

In fact, it means that you cannot help but be in on it: you’re a hive of atoms. In your bodies alone swarms the miracle of creation.

Now.  That even the tiniest speck of matter is holy does not contradict this other truth: to be in on the miracle means, first and last, to live into and die into Christ’s resurrection.

Likewise, finding quarks sacred does not contradict the truth that being in on the miracle can mean growing capable of moving mountains.  It can.  However, there are only so many mountains, and a lot of them ought to stay put.

It’s an important thing, then, to embrace the fact that being in on the miracle can look a lot more like doing a chore than stunning a crowd of onlookers.  And in this, too—in embracing the mundane side of the miraculous—Christ goes before us.  Think, for instance, of him dusting Palestine off his disciples’ ankles.  Think of him spelling out the meaning of his parables for his mulish disciples; that must have been about as gratifying as having to explain a joke.

To state it bluntly: not all Christ’s miracles drew crowds.

But even when his miracles did draw crowds, “Jesus himself,” as the poet Christian Wiman observes, “often [sought] to mute [the] effects” of those wonders we recognize as his miracles, “want[ing] the people around him to place their faith in more commonplace occurrences.”  Wiman continues: “The kingdom of boredom […] could be the kingdom of God.”

Well, that might be an overstatement, but I would argue that, at the least, the kingdom of boredom and the kingdom of God share an unmarked and undefended border.  After all, when Christ does perform the wonders we’re used to calling miracles, the extras who happen to be on hand could not, I suspect, say with any certainty on which side of the border they were standing—that is, whether they were in the kingdom of boredom or in the kingdom of God.

Take the servants at Cana assigned the monotonous task of hauling 150 gallons of water, give or take, to the feet of a man who had not yet conceded to turn it into wine.  Take the bystanders who put their shoulders to the stone in front of Lazarus’s tomb never having known death to be anything but a permanent (and pungent) condition.  Or take the four men responsible for jury-rigging a suspended scaffold that they used to lower their friend into spitting distance of a mortal purported to be the Messiah.

Here’s the point: all of these extras did tasks without any glamor attached to them—but they were in on the miracle.

And, chances are that God will call you, too—not always, but often—to do tasks without any glamor attached to them.  So that your way of being in on the miracle might be to research careful position papers that no one credits with changing their mind. Or to clean up after the alcoholic who lurches into the ER.  Or to check the equations that someone smarter than you has already worked.  Or to practice the concerto again. Or to forgive the tactlessness of a classroom of middle-school students.  Or to… well, you can fill in the blank.

Chances are, in other words, that if you follow Christ, you will spend some time—maybe even most of your time—in the kingdom of boredom or, at least, of routine, taking part in the miracles that don’t narrate well but that, nonetheless, usher in the kingdom of God.

Maybe that sounds dismal, but I hope not.

Because I believe that, if you are attentive to such things, you will feel God’s countenance upon you.  And I believe that there will be a joy that attends even your least recognized acts of faithfulness.

Some of that joy will be yours; some of it you’ll sign over to others.  Some of that joy you won’t see for what it is until you cross into the world to come.

One of the folks from the class of 1966 wrote me shortly after a funeral.  Someone he cared about had just crossed to that world to come, and thinking on that and on you all, his hope was that you would find “more and different graduations ahead” and that, at last one, your Savior would greet you with these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  His letter made me think of my granddad who, on the cusp of graduating this life, had to be even more succinct.  He yanked his breathing mask off and gave those he loved one last piece of advice.  “Be there,” he said.

Dear class of 2016, be there.  If you fail to recognize every other miracle, show up on the other side of Christ’s contagious resurrection, where—in the grand scheme of things—we’ll all be newly minted graduates.

And, of course, if there’s any way you can help it, don’t fail to recognize the other miracles.  Be here, too, where the kingdom of God and the kingdom of boredom meet, where there are so many wonders and chores before you. Be in on the miracle. Amen.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

4 Comments

  • Lee Collins says:

    This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. Every bush is aflame, but only those who are aware take off their shoes.

  • Esther DeBoer says:

    Thank you for posting this. It gives me joy to see that our youth are getting sent off with good advice and that the years at Calvin will influence the world by them. God bless.

  • betlw says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was unable to attend the commencement and am glad I can read this. I pray that the graduates will carry these truths with them through life.

  • Janet says:

    Preach it girl! That was humbling and uplifting. It was painful yet healing. Thought provoking and soul resting. Well done.

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