Making the Invisible Visible
Dr. David Zietsma’s inaugural address at Redeemer’s 40th anniversary celebration service.
23 min. read
April 24, 2023

Good afternoon, everyone. It is indeed a tremendous honour and privilege to be speaking to you today as Redeemer’s 5th president. I want to thank the board of governors for the confidence they have shown in me in making this appointment and also for the encouragement, support, accountability and good governance they have provided along the journey so far. I am also honoured to share this moment of formal inauguration with my wife, Anna, an amazing life partner, prayer warrior, and committed Christian education supporter, without whom my work here at Redeemer would not be possible. I’m privileged to share this moment with my parents who are here today, who raised me in a Christian environment and provided me with Christian education from K-12. I probably stayed too long, and I apologize for that at home, but God did lead me eventually on the path he had chosen. I’m also honoured to share this with my sister Caroline, who is here today, and her husband Pete. I have six siblings and she’s the only one here today, solidifying her spot as the favourite. And, of course, I am honoured to share this moment with President Emeritus Cooper who is here today, and Past President Robert Graham from whom I learned so much and had the privilege of working under directly for almost three years. And, of course, with all of you: colleagues, friends, extended family, alumni, community members, supporters, faculty, staff and students. 

But it is only a moment; a present moment, if you will. Something temporal, something fleeting. The far greater privilege I have today is to be able to share a look forward. There is so much to celebrate as we look back, so much to give God praise for. It is indeed sometimes daunting. I catch myself thinking, “Wow, what if this is the peak of what God has in store for Redeemer? What if this is as good as it gets? The bling is nice, but do I want to be the president that comes down the other side of the peak?” Look how far we have come. Did the founders of Redeemer ever imagine an 86 acre campus, with nearly 1,100 students this fall, more than 500 of whom are living in community on campus, five degrees being offered, a breadth of arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences, two schools, fully accredited as a university? Did they look forward and see that God would do all of this in 40 years?

…in order for God to continue to use Redeemer, Redeemer must remain convicted about and committed to its founding mission, its Reformed Christian mission and purpose.

For, as we’ve heard today, what God has done is indeed truly amazing, especially when you consider the social, political and cultural changes our society has experienced over the past 40 years. So, who can really see what lies ahead 40 years from now? Who can see what God will do? What physical changes to the campus, what new degrees and programs, what changes in enrolment or accreditation status and other developments will occur? I’ve looked everywhere and have not yet found the crystal ball in the president’s office. Either Dr. Cooper or Dr. Graham took it with them when they left.

But we don’t need a crystal ball for one thing. One thing is indeed clear: that in order for God to continue to use Redeemer – no matter its size, location, degrees, accreditation – that in order for God to continue to use Redeemer, Redeemer must remain convicted about and committed to its founding mission, its Reformed Christian mission and purpose. The same mission and vision that has been the centre of its purpose for 40 years. And so, in my remarks this afternoon, I will be looking forward. But I will focus more on how we will move forward rather than what we will do. 

And how we will move forward is captured, I hope, in the title of this address: Making Visible the Invisible.

The name of this university, of course, is Redeemer. As an institution, we bear both the name but also the purpose of Jesus Christ. This name reflects that we acknowledge his Lordship, his kingship, his sovereignty over everything we do. But, more than that, the name Redeemer reflects the very purpose of this university. That is, we exist to make the hope and love of Jesus Christ known in the world – the redeeming power of the Redeemer; we exist to begin now that work of reconciliation, and we do that in research and creative work and in scholarship and in practice and significantly in preparing students to bear the name of the Redeemer wherever they are called. 

There is so much from the reading from Colossians 1 that Naomi read for us that resonates with how Redeemer must move forward. I want to begin with the overarching frame from verse 15, where Paul writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus makes visible the invisible. Jesus gives us an image of God himself, God the creator, God our creator. Jesus is the perfect image of God. And so, in making Jesus known, in reflecting Jesus, Redeemer seeks to make God himself visible to the world around us.

Images are indeed tricky things. I think we all recognize that we live in an image-saturated society. Images are visual representations of things, pictures that represent reality, but they often do so imperfectly. 

As a dad, I’ve noticed that kids, at a young age, well I guess my kids, and therefore I assume all kids, (because mine are normal, right?) kids, naturally make images. They enjoy creating and crafting things. Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than on my birthday or my wife’s birthday or on father’s or on mother’s day. The kids sit down at a young age and they set about making a card, often with a little bit of guidance. They’ll draw balloons or flowers in a field, but often what they draw is a picture of the family. And I can remember one year several years ago, and I don’t even know which one it was from (we have four children), but I received one, I think it was on father’s day, and they had pictured us all standing as a family with hands held. And I think we only had three at the time. But there they were, the smallest one a certain size, little stick figure, stick arms and legs. The next one, a bit taller, stick figure, stick arms and legs. And then eventually Anna, stick figure, nice long hair. And then there was me on the end – a series of circles! “Why am I circles?” I asked. And I’ll never forget the response. “’Cause that’s what you look like! And you’re bald!” Nothing like a child to manage your ego for you.

Images. They are all around us. We’re naturally given to creating images. In our hyper-digital world, we consume images constantly; but we also make images. In our world, I think now, more than ever before, we are focused on making images of ourselves and having that image reflected back to us. Among teens today, image consumption and the need for self-imaging has led to a significant increase in mental health challenges, anxiety, loneliness, despair. According to a recent piece that I believe is on GospelCoalition.org by author Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, entitled “Scrolling Alone: How Instagram is Making a Generation of Girls Anxious, Lonely and Sad,” she writes that, in recent studies, nearly half of teenagers today experience persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness – nearly half. 

But it’s not only teenagers that are being impacted. It is far easier for me, or for any of us to scroll on our phones, express ourselves and shape our own image, the image that we want, in digital spaces. It’s far easier to do that than it often is to engage in the complexity of real relationships –the challenges and messiness of engaging with others. 

In his recent book, The Life We’re Looking For, Christian commentator and author Andy Crouch noted the significant challenge presented to us by our devices and social media. He wrote: “These personalized encounters can be thrilling in their transactional simplicity. Because there is no actual person on the other side of them, the only person who has to be taken into account is me – glorious me! My interests, my priorities, my preferences, my agenda – all are being processed and presented to me in a cascade of reflections [of images] far more captivating than Narcissus’s pool.”

The end result, concludes Crouch, is an epidemic of loneliness. The images and imaging that the world offers today leave a gaping hole in the human experience. They cannot fulfill us. But we should not be fooled – this hole that we experience in our humanity is not new. In different eras and different contexts, the brokenness of the world has been just as real and just as daunting. The source of our problem is not a digital culture and digital society – but the source of our problem at its heart is sin; sin has separated us from God. God was no longer a visible walking presence with us the way he was as he did with Adam and Eve, whom he formed with his present and visible hands.

The solution to the sin problem, of course, is Jesus. It is through Jesus’ death that our brokenness is healed and that we can be reunited with God. Jesus makes the love and mercy and grace of God visible to us again.

The heart of it is that Scripture for Redeemer is authoritative for all of life and all of learning. And, upon that word of God, the Reformed Christian world and life view anchors us in a story.

And the purpose of Redeemer over the next 40 years must be to continue to ground young Christians into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and to send them out as his God’s image bearers to prepare them to reflect the hope and love of Jesus in an anxious, lonely and despairing world. To make visible what is invisible to so many but what is so needed.

And this purpose emerges right from the objects of the university. I appreciated Dr. Cooper highlighting for us how God moved and acted through various legislative acts, but right in that act that founds and grounds the university, it says that we will engage in learning and knowledge on “the basis of the Reformed confessions, traditions, and perspectives.”

I often get asked, “That’s great, but what does that mean?” Obviously, it’s complex. It animates different disciplines differently, it animates research and scholarship and student life and co-curricular activities all in unique ways. 

The heart of it is that Scripture for Redeemer is authoritative for all of life and all of learning. And, upon that word of God, the Reformed Christian world and life view anchors us in a story. It anchors us in a story of God’s unfolding work in the world: creation, fall, redemption and coming restoration. We want our research to be grounded in that unfolding work to point forward to reconciliation in the fullness of time. We want our students to live in and out of that story, looking back at the cross and looking forward to when Christ will return. We don’t want them living out of some other story. We don’t want them living out of a story of human progress or human justice or human triumph and achievement. We want them to live out of God’s story of justice and forgiveness and grace. We don’t want them living out of a story of their own making on TikTok or Instagram but out of a story that says, “Jesus is my Lord and Saviour and I want to make him known.” 

Within this story, we also acknowledge that we live on contested ground. There is opposition to Christ and his Kingdom. In the longer video (you saw a teaser here today), the longer video has an excellent quote from professor emerita of English Dr. Deborah Bowen from C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis said this: “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”

So, in all things, in all learning and living at Redeemer, we seek to locate that which points to Christ and celebrate that and that which advances the gospel and celebrate that, and we turn away from that which misleads and opposes Christ. 

So, how will we move forward with that purpose in mind? These verses in Colossians, I think, give us a few key “hows” or tasks about how we can do that. And there are four of them, and I’ll comment briefly on each of the four.

1) The first task, the first way, the first “how” we must move forward is through prayer.

Paul starts this message to the believers at Colossae with these words: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”

And how often were they praying? Verse 9 tells us “…since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.”

Redeemer will only succeed in serving God’s purposes if prayer for Redeemer and prayer at Redeemer is consistent and committed. As we’ve looked back over 40 years, we’ve seen countless testimonies of God working through prayer, of God answering prayer. And, even over the last couple of years during a pandemic, I can’t tell you how many times answers to prayer came from God. We need the prayers of our support community. We are thankful for the prayers you continue to give. And without prayer, Redeemer cannot move forward. 

But we also want prayer to be part of who we are here at Redeemer and what we do on campus. Paul notes later in chapter 4 that Epaphras, who is referenced in chapter 1 and is a leader there among the believers, is also always wrestling in prayer. We want to cultivate a life of prayer among students, through our worship, and among faculty and staff. We want the campus community to be one that is in deep relationship with God, and that kind of relationship requires prayer. 

2) The second task, the second “how,” is that we must always acknowledge that learning is a spiritual activity.

Christian education institutions, I believe, that forget this reality that learning is spiritual, will do so at the expense of their mission. Learning is spiritual. It can’t be separated out into curriculum/content/pedagogy over here, and spirituality/spiritual engagement over here. Knowledge, truth, wisdom, these things are not products of book knowledge or content dissemination, rather God ultimately is their source.

Paul writes in verse 9 that: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, — God is doing the filling; it’s the Spirit that’s giving wisdom and understanding.”

And later in verse 21, which you didn’t read, Paul writes: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds (not enemies in your politics, not enemies in what you post on Facebook, not enemies in simply your behaviour, but enemies in your minds) because of your sin. We know that truth itself is contested by evil. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, this, about what our task is as believers: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Learning, research, creativity, practice – these are spiritual activities that our faculty are engaged in. Evil and sin mislead and misdirect, but God is the source of wisdom and understanding. Redeemer must move forward into the next 40 years the same way it came through the first 40 – always acknowledging that learning is a spiritual activity, that the academy is spiritual ground, it is contested ground and that we seek here at Redeemer to make captive every thought for Christ. 

3) The third “how” is that we must be a community of discipleship.

Paul writes this in verse 6: “In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.  You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ.” 

If learning is spiritual, then the learning process is inherently, necessarily. a discipling process of growing in the Gospel. Look how Paul describes this for the believers at Colossae. They learned it from Epaphras. who was one of them. Our desire – my desire – is that our campus is filled with Epaphrases. We want faculty to be teaching from the bedrock of their own walk with God as they teach and mentor; we want staff to engage with students in ways that deepen the knowledge and experience of God’s grace and students to engage with each other in mutually supportive and spiritually connected relationships. In classrooms and labs and seminars, in residence life, athletics, student activities, clubs, in campus worship: in all these things, discipleship, growing in the gospel must be the heartbeat of what Redeemer lives into over the next 40 years. 

4) Finally, the fourth task, or the fourth “how,” is that we pursue fruitfulness in all things.

Verse 10 of Colossians 1 says this: “…that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.”

Where do we do every good work? Paul give us a hint in verse in verse 16: “In Christ, all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Bearing fruit in every good work; that applies to all things. Because all things were created in and for him.

In our world today, a university degree is a bit like a passport. It gives one access. University graduates fill social and cultural positions of influence. In the US, nearly 40% of 25-64 year olds hold a university degree. In Canada, that number is approximately ⅓. But in areas of culture and social influence – politics, media, business leadership, education and so on — the percentage of those working that hold a university degree in those areas is much higher.

Universities are centres of tremendous cultural influence. Through their research and their graduates, they have a reach that is far beyond their physical or economic footprint that they have. It is out of academia that the guiding narratives of our culture emerge. Why is this? Because university graduates carry with them the worldview and narratives that shaped them during their university years. These are formative years for young adults deciding who they are and who they want to become.

Barna Group is a US-based research group and resource organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. In recent research, Barna estimates that roughly 70% of high school students who enter university as professing Christians will leave that university with little to no faith – 70%. These students don’t usually return to their faith after graduation, and Barna projects that 80% of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29 if they’ve attended a university. 

These numbers are staggering. But they reflect the reality that universities profoundly shape the world and life view that their graduates take with them. Universities are discipling whether they intend to or not.

For Redeemer to continue to shape students that take with them a gospel narrative, to bear fruit in every good work, in all things, we must ensure that we are committed to giving them the best passport we can. 

We must understand the needs of university students today so that their passport, their degree, is relevant and meaningful. While remaining firmly grounded in the Christian mission of this university and the holistic liberal arts and science approach to learning, an approach that emerges from that mission, we must continually innovate and explore. The commitment to the founding mission, in effect, demands that we do so, demands that we ensure that students are prepared well to be fruitful in every good work and to be effective leaders, thinkers, contributors to the world once they graduate. 

And so, over the next number of years, we will explore new undergraduate programs and degrees, we will renew existing programs, we hope to launch graduate degrees for the first time. We must explore new, flexible pathways into and out of Redeemer, we must consider things like micro-credentials and explore the appropriate and relational uses of technology including the potential for virtual engagement and digital learning that preserves relationship and community; and we must be committed to a financially and environmentally stewardly and sustainable university, driving new revenue streams that will support the mission and care for this gift of land that God has provided to us for it.

We will do none of these things for the sake of the institution itself or public acclaim or for the glory of any individual. We do them because we are committed to bringing the fruit of the gospel to every good work, to all things. We do them to prepare a generation of flexible, problem-solving graduates that will be called into all kinds of fields and vocations not to succeed in those fields and vocations necessarily for its own sake but to share the hope and love of Christ in those places, to reflect who he is and to make visible God’s love to many.

These are the four key tasks that we must move forward with: prayer, spiritually engaged learning, discipleship, and fruitfulness in all things.

And so, my prayer looking forward is that God will use Redeemer over the next 40 years to make himself visible to a broken and lonely world, to reflect the beauty and joy of what he created and who he created and to restore many into a right relationship with himself. 

In a world captivated by the self – “glorious me” as Andy Crouch put it – may Redeemer’s graduates point only to the Redeemer: Jesus himself. In business and politics, in art and science and education and ministry and families and communities, in all areas of life, may Redeemer graduates lives testify:  

I will not boast in anything
No gifts no pow’r no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing with you today. Thank you for the trust of this mission moving forward. and let’s join together now in singing of God’s great and deep love for us. Thank you.

Dr. Zietsma’s full speech is available to watch via the livestream below.

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