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Parent Convocation Service

On Wednesday, September 3, 2008, there was a worship service for parents of students who were beginning orientation at Calvin College.

Henry DeVries, Vice President for Finance and father of a first-year student, gave a brief meditation. Three parents offered prayers: Jane Vogel prayed for the children, Lesli Van Milligen prayed for the parents, and Jeff Tatum prayed for Calvin College.

The texts for the meditation and one of the prayers is below. The scripture passage for the service was Psalm 139:1-18.

"20/20 Sight" - Henry De Vries

When I was asked to give the meditation for this service, the first Scripture passage that came to mind was the familiar words of Ps 139, verse 13, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” But what I heard in my mind was not the sound of a pastor’s voice from a pulpit or my father’s voice reading scripture after a family meal.  Rather, it was the nostalgic sound of a 4-year old and her mother, singing the verse from the Steve Green song of the same name. I’m guessing that many of us parents have many similar memories today of special moments in the lifetime of our student.  And, if your house is like mine, those memories are probably still fresh because the posters of photos that were put together for a recent high school graduation party are still sitting on top of the piano. And when we walk by those photos, we pause for a moment as one of them catches our eye and we say to ourselves “Oh, I remember when….

Today, that 4-year old is 18 years old, and she’s a young woman ready to begin life as a Calvin student. For the past months she’s been busy thinking about what classes to take, making new friends on Facebook and by text messages, getting acquainted, via e-mail, with a new roommate whose home is half a world away, and, of course, making many trips to Target to get just the right stuff to decorate her dorm room, her new home on Calvin’s campus.

So, here we are, parents and students at the beginning of a new adventure.  For my wife and I, this process of sending a child off to Calvin feels familiar, because we’ve done this before with 3 older children. We know from experience that we’ll survive the goodbyes after the picnic in a little while.  There will be hugs and kisses and probably a few tears—and that ever-present admonition “Dad, stop it, you’re embarrassing me.” But we know it’s OK to embarrass our kids just a little bit.  After that’s what we do—we’re parents and its part of the job description. And, after the goodbyes, we’ll probably hang around just a few minutes at the edge of the Common’s lawn to be sure that she finds her orientation group and she’s OK. Sure, we’ve been looking out for our child for so many years; it just comes natural to us.  And while we’re standing there, she’ll head off to her Orientation Leader and that new group of soon-to-be friends.  And suddenly, she’ll be a Calvin student with an entire world of opportunities facing her and we’ll head home.

As I was reading the scripture verse once again, it struck me that the rest of the words of Psalm 139 have a great message for all of us, both parents and students, for the next days, and weeks and years. In preparing, one of the first notes that I found on this Psalm was from John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms. He summarizes the theme of this psalm in just a few words, “God knows all things and is everywhere present.”  I thought-- what a great encouragement that is for all of us, both parents and students, as we anticipate these new chapters in our lives.

In the first six verses of this Psalm, David makes the case that not only is God all-knowing, but that WE are fully known. He knows us, and he knows everything about us. God has a perfect knowledge of us, all of our thoughts and all of our actions are open before him. Whether we stand up or sit down, before we go out or come back home, even before a word is on our tongue, God already knows that.

For you students, these next days and weeks you will be getting to “know” lots of new people--those that you will be living with: roommates, suitemates, your RAs and other people on the hall. And you’ll find connections with other people, your orientation group, classmates, lab partners, teammates, and maybe fellow employees. You’ll even have a chance to get to know professors, coaches, counselors, supervisors and other college employees.  But, depending on who you are and who they are, you might get to know them well or maybe hardly at all. Some of these people that you will encounter are outgoing and gregarious and will want to know everything about you. On other hand, some people would rather be left alone and would prefer to just do their own thing. Some of you are already anxious about the infamous “group games” in your Orientation Group and would rather not have your lives be an open book to a bunch of strangers.

But, no matter how much we enjoy (or don’t enjoy) getting to know other people, David reassures us that God’s knowledge of us is thorough, and comprehensive, and constant. And God’s knowledge of us is not just a matter of factual knowledge; God has become personally attached to us. We should not feel threatened by this; instead this is a source of great security and assurance.  In today’s language, God “has our back.”

In the next six verses, David takes this idea one step further. Not only does God know all things, he is present everywhere. To illustrate his point, David uses broad, expansive examples—in the heavens, in the depths of the sea, in the far east where the sun rises, or the far west where it sets—God is there.  Not only is he there, David states that God is there to guide us and protect us because “his right hand will hold me fast.”  The Psalmist gives us another striking example—even when we think that we can hide from God in the darkness, he will be there for us because God can see us in the darkness just as easily as if we were in the light.

I remember, more than a few years ago, when my parents dropped me off at Calvin, my grandmother was with us and she gave them some sage advice.  She said “From now on, whenever Henry comes home, you need to treat him like a guest in your home.”  She didn’t mean that our parent-child relationship would ever change.  In fact, I still call my Dad and Mom for advice.  Instead, what she meant is that for students, college brings a new sense of independence and decision-making.  You students will realize very quickly that it is now up to you to make the decisions about all aspects of your day-to-day life.  And we, as parents, may or may not be included in that decision making.  And, when you come home from college for the first time, that sense of independence will come along with you.

As parents we’ve been accustomed to knowing almost all of the details of your lives for the past few years. We’ve had, at least, a general idea of where you go, who you are with, when you’ll be home, even—if you’ve changed the oil in the car. All of the sudden, starting tonight, this is going to change.  Sure, we have cell phones and e-mail to stay in touch, but, if your house is like mine has been, as the kids move out and move away (and sometimes far away for off-campus semesters in distant time zones), we no longer know the daily rhythm and the nitty-gritty details of their lives.  And we’ll begin to wonder “Is he getting enough to eat,” “Is she getting enough sleep?” “Has he made new friends?” “Is she lonely?” “Is he getting all of his homework done?”

But here’s where Psalm 139 again gives us comfort and assurance.  And even when we parents don’t know everything that is going on, God not only knows fully, but he has attached himself to our students in such a way that they cannot go anywhere that is away from his presence.  In fact, unlike the threat or annoyance that our students might have felt by our parental involvement in the details of their lives, there is security and comfort in knowing that God is watching them and is close to them everywhere and at all times. 

Finally, we get to that verse we started with – “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” The Psalmist explains that one of the reasons for God’s thorough attachment to us is that he made us.  Although David’s understanding of science and medicine was very limited, compared to what we know today, nonetheless, he is in awe of the fact that God’s the creator had his hand on us from the very beginning of our existence in our mother’s womb. 

There is no doubt in David’s mind that we are wonderfully made and he reiterates that fact throughout this next section of the psalm. Verse 16 at the end of this section has always been an important verse to me. “All the days ordained for me were written in the book, before one of them came to be.”  In other words, God, in his providence, has a plan already established for us and he knows what’s going to happen to us. That is the other great comfort that I have as a parent as I prepare to leave my daughter here at Calvin.  Not only does God fully know her, he is always with her, and this next step for her is part of his plan for her life, too. That is easy to say, of course, but it is sometimes difficult to internalize. Inevitably, there will be some bumps in the road--some of you will have a tough time getting along with your roommate; that first round of tests and papers will lead to mid-term grades that will leave you wondering “what am I doing here?”; you’ll miss your friends back home (and even your family) and wonder “why did I go so far away to college?”  Allow me to comment on those “bump-in-the-road” questions with a short personal reflection.

One of my favorite pastimes is to go backpacking and hiking. I’ve hiked in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the Colorado Rockies, and in the Sierra Nevada in California.  One of the challenges of backcountry hiking is getting to the top.  Whether it is bagging the peak of a “14-er” in Colorado or achieving a high-mountain pass in the Sierra, I always try to figure out for myself where the trail is going and how soon I’ll get to the “top.”  But, if you’re familiar with that kind of terrain you also know that there are “false summits”.  These are places that, from below, look like the top, but in reality are hiding the next section of the trail and the true summit from view.  After you get over the disappointment of the false summit, you still keep walking, sometimes struggling, with the hope and expectation that you’ll get to the top.  But, in every case, when you do get there, it’s simple to look back at the whole trail, false summits and all, and see the big picture of the journey.

The application of this story to God’s Providence for our lives is in this simple phrase that I like to share “Gods providence, like hindsight, is always 20/20.”  Even though we believe the Romans 3:28, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (NIV)” sometimes it can be a challenge for us to see that. As we look forward, it’s not always clear to us what God’s plans are.  Sometimes, it takes a long time after an event or circumstance to understand why it happened. Sometimes we have to look over our shoulder or back down the trail to see the whole picture of how God has brought to where we are.

And, that brings us back to today.  As I said earlier, my wife and I have been here before—to say goodbye to one of the kids, but one thing is different for us this year.  Tonight, we’ll be going home to the proverbial “empty nest.”  And aside from the cat who will be there to greet us, our house will be a different place for the first time in many years—each of our 4 kids will be making their home under a different roof. And, I imagine, we may stand in front of the piano and look wistfully at those photos one more time.  And, we’ll probably get a little teary-eyed when we realize that those days are gone.  But, any momentary sadness will be replaced by a greater comfort.  That’s the comfort of knowing the God of Psalm 139, a God who fully knows us and is always present with us, who made us, and who knows all of the steps along the paths of our lives.

My prayer is that each of you here, each student and each parent, will know that same comfort.  That, as you look back, you will clearly see the steps in the path that God used to bring you to Calvin today.  And, as you look forward, you will know with certainty that he will continue to guide your steps.

Prayer for Our Children - Jane Vogel

Father God,

Thank you for lending us these sons and daughters. Thank you that we can leave today knowing that you will not leave them.

O Lord, you have searched them and you know them. Their lives—past and future—are an open book to you. You know when they are sitting in class (help them to focus there) and when they are getting up in the morning (please help them to get up on time).

More than ever, our students’ thoughts will be independent of ours. You know what they are thinking. Continue to transform them by the renewing of their minds.

You know when they are going out—and with whom. Please guide them into healthy, helpful relationships.  You know when they go to bed at night—or early morning. Some of them might need help getting to sleep tonight. Many have never shared a room—much less a bathroom with three other teenagers. Please fill the dorms with your peace-giving Spirit.

Lord, you know everything these children of ours and yours are going to say, even before they post it on Facebook. Give them wisdom and kindness in all they say. Give them the grace to say, “I’m sorry,” and, “I forgive you.”

In this new phase of their lives, when possibilities seem almost boundless, you hem them in before and behind, past and future. We claim your covenant promises to them with gratitude.

Your knowledge is infinite—too lofty for finite minds to attain. Yet your image-bearers are here in pursuit of knowledge. Help them to be true students. Let them learn about chemistry and music, literature and mathematics. Guide them to their vocations. Teach them the depth and the riches of your wisdom.

We’re leaving today. You are not. We’re used to knowing, more or less, where our children are, what they’re doing. It’s easier to let go of that supervision knowing you’re on the job. If they are lifted up in worship—and we pray that they will be—you are there. If they fall into a pit of discouragement, homesickness, depression—and we pray that they won’t—you (and the Broene center) are there. If they take the wings of the morning or the red-eye flights of the night, you are there.

For you created their inmost beings; you knit them together in their mothers’ wombs. We praise you, because our sons and daughters are fearfully and wonderfully made. All the days ordained for them were written in your book before one of them came to be!

We love our children, Lord, and we’ll be thinking of them over and over. Thank you that you’re thinking of them all the time. When we wake up next week, next month, in our quieter, emptier homes; when they wake up in their dorm rooms; we are all still with you. We count on that.