Called to Restoration
Noah Van Brenk, valedictorian for the Class of 2018 addressed his fellow graduates with a message of reflection and encouragement.
11 min. read
September 18, 2018

Well, here we are. The fact that we’ve arrived at this moment is thanks in large part to the support of those sitting around us, and many who may not be here but have nonetheless exerted significant influence on our journey. We are filled with thanks for the Redeemer staff who helped us with the admissions process, fed us, kept the hallways and classrooms clean, helped us plan our programs, gave us career advice, fostered a welcoming campus environment, were our work supervisors, and so much more. We stand in awe of the wisdom, generosity, and attentiveness of our faculty, who encouraged us not merely as students but as people, continually pushing us to mature academically while simultaneously helping us to begin to shed our false selves. And we are indebted to our parents in everything they do for us, to our extended family who perhaps cared for us and checked in on us while we were far away from our nuclear families. To say that we are grateful to you all for this matrix of support is an understatement – to describe it as an unpayable debt is closer to the mark.

For us as students, today marks the last event of a long line of experiences we have shared together over the past years, experiences which have spanned virtually every facet of human existence. Perhaps we met one another on the first day of classes of our first year, or maybe didn’t meet until much later in a different setting. Many of those meetings have led to lifelong friendships, connections which have spanned academic disciplines, age, program year, and nationalities. We’ve dragged each other to 8 a.m. classes, sat through night classes in which time seemed to run backwards and in others where we couldn’t believe the lecture was already over. We have stayed up late into the night, laughing with each other in living rooms, on porches, delighting in each other’s company.  

We have broken bread together in every possible sense of the phrase, from the elaborate Thanksgiving and Christmas meals constructed by many hands in cramped dorm kitchens complete with turkey, stuffing, and gravy, to last-minute meals constructed when you realized, on a Friday afternoon with a sinking feeling, that the market closed five minutes ago and you were supposed to cook and now the house has no food for the entire weekend and you must attempt to weather the wrath of your housemates by ordering a pizza to placate them, and every kind of meal in between. The athletes among us have represented Redeemer on the court and field with integrity and passion, displaying the glory and abilities of the human form, with the rest of us cheering them on fanatically from the sidelines, being present with them in both the elation of victory and the disappointment of defeat.

We have spent countless hours in classes together, beginning with first-year core classes in the crammed lecture halls of Rooms 213 and 214 to fourth-year seminars with sometimes less than five people and prep for education classes in the TERC room. We have discussed big ideas with each other, sometimes disagreeing passionately and other times standing firmly on the same ground, but all the while growing together. We have banded together in midterm season, quizzing each other on course material, leaning on each other when it felt like we couldn’t remember another historical date or tendon insertion point or psychological concept. We have studied for exams communally, supplying each other at one point or another with a steady stream of blankets, teas, cookies from treat night, and encouragement, curled up in the corners of classrooms, sometimes stressed to the point where laughing or crying uncontrollably seemed like equally probable outcomes.

We have celebrated in each other’s triumphs and accomplishments, from theses presentations to music recitals to theatre productions, co-op jobs to teaching placements secured, medals earned in varsity sports to intramural victories, research undertaken alongside faculty members and leadership demonstrated through various roles on campus. We have also cried together, shedding holy tears which the Psalmist proclaims are kept by God in a bottle and recorded in his book. We have worshipped him in song, word, and deed – in short, we have lived together. We have encountered one another, enacting profound transformations in those around us and being transformed ourselves.

And now, questions linger in the air: what now? Where do we go from here? For some of us, that question may already be answered for the foreseeable future; for others, such an answer seems a long way off. As I’ve asked myself these questions, I have been repeatedly brought back to the theme verse of this year and its subsequent phrase: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” These requests seem to me to be almost synonymous; the Kingdom is God’s will; his will is the Kingdom, and we want both. But what exactly is God’s will for us?  I posed this question to a wise pastor friend of mine, and he responded with this: God wills our restoration both to wholeness and to holiness. This reality is the downbeat, the anchoring note of any reflection about God’s will. Everything comes back to this point – God wills your restoration both to wholeness and to holiness. In other words, He wills that we be fully healed in our creatureliness and that our sinful condition be fully redeemed. In this way, we are not merely cogs in the wheel of a machine, we are not pieces which get lost in the larger plan – we are the plan.

Similarly, when we say, “Thy kingdom come,” we are not specifically praying that God’s kingdom be established or founded, since it is already fully here. In his resurrection from the dead, Christ was crowned as King of God’s kingdom. We are two thousand years removed from this coronation, and if God’s kingdom is not already here, Christ is merely a pretend-king – you can’t be a king without a kingdom! Instead, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are praying for the manifestation of God’s kingdom, and the ongoing restoration of you and I is an intrinsic part of that manifestation. The kingdom is revealed when someone’s wholeness and holiness is accomplished through God’s redemptive purposes.

But what does this mean for all of us individually? The American theologian Frederick Buechner writes that “the place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Or, to quote my pastor friend again: “When young people tell me they can’t find God’s will for their lives, I tell them to look at God’s will for ANYONE’S life,” meaning his will for our restoration. In other words, our vocations can be seen as God’s invitation to us to participate in the restoration of those around us and the revelation of his kingdom. My friends, you all have God-ordained dreams, passions, talents, abilities, things which make your hearts soar, which make you feel truly alive. I am convinced that part of God’s willing of our collective restoration not only involves those things, but depends on them; he desires that the things you love most dearly be used to quicken, to aid, to contribute to someone else’s restoration, to bring them shalom, to help them to breathe easy.

Over your time here at Redeemer, you’ve been figuring out exactly what your deep joys are, as well as what they aren’t, with the help of your faculty, family, and classmates. You’ve been fine-tuning your restorative skill sets, and you are now ready to begin your work. That work might involve creating any conceivable kind of artwork, preparing lesson plans for a class of young children, conducting scientific research, performing complex and abstract mathematical calculations, leading theatre workshops, delivering sermons to congregations of all ages, reviewing and preparing case studies of business models, injecting wisdom and discernment into international affairs, reading, interpreting, and writing in ways that are both beautiful and powerful – the list goes on. Do not believe for a second the lie that your passions and abilities are irrelevant, unimportant, or worthless simply because they are not currently financially lucrative, or seemingly inefficient and obsolete according to the world’s standards. Such talk is utterly counterproductive to joyful Kingdom revelation. Not one of your joys is too small for the Kingdom – every single one contains immense restorative potential. To be sure, you may very well find yourselves in careers or environments that you would not have predicted or that don’t initially seem to match with your areas of study, but this in no way means that those passions and interests cannot still be used to their full potential. I expect that many of us will be surprised by the ways our distinct restorative tools will be used, but also that those surprises will be full of deep, unexpected joy. Such joy can only come from a faith and trust that Christ will use our passions to restore the world – cling tight to them (and Him) and do not let them go.

Of course, we cannot yet see the Kingdom fully. The exact working out of God’s restorative purposes is almost always opaque – our lives are sometimes so difficult, bewildering, discouraging, and even tragic, that it is often only in retrospect, when we stand on the opposite side of difficulty, that we are able to see how God used a situation or people in our life to restore us. In the same way, the restoration you will each enact may not be fully appreciated by those who have been transformed until much later; indeed, the extent of the restorative work that you will each bring about may not be apparent even to you until after you’ve moved on to a different project, or perhaps not even within your lifetime.

This is the task which awaits us – to reveal the Kingdom through our gifts, passions, and interests, to ask ourselves: what kind of need in the world can my deep joys fulfill? Where is God inviting me to join him in his project of restoration? Such questions require us to leave the bounds of this university, for our paths to diverge for the foreseeable future, for us to take our experiences out with us into our new workplaces, our new homes, our new relationships, our new schools, our new cities. This exodus is exciting and invigorating, but perhaps also tinged with deep grief, with pain and a sense of loss. Tears which are shed in such grief are certainly not an evil, but are in fact blessed. Nevertheless, as we experience the conclusion of our season at Redeemer, this end which is also a beginning, the end of a beginning, we confidently anticipate the time when the glory, freedom, and laughter of Christ’s kingdom will be made fully and inescapably manifest, when there will only be beginnings, when all of our experiences of brokenness, self-destruction, self-delusion, and self-contradiction will be, as C. S. Lewis describes, nothing more than a false start, a failure to begin that has been wiped out, a mere blip in the flow of eternity corrected in the blink of an eye, an eternity in which there will be no endings.

My friends, may this reality of the Kingdom that Christ rules over and that will one day be visible to everyone give you courage, strength, and joy, even as you yourselves bring it to pass and make it manifest through your passions, talents, vulnerability, kindness, and witness to the restoration that God has already enacted in each of you. So this is goodbye for now – I tremble with joy to think about the amazing projects of restoration that we are all about to embark on, about all the restorative things we will do, and I can’t wait to swap stories with you very soon.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

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