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It was one of those "good news, bad news" conversations. I was being told that Neal Plantinga, Calvin College's Dean of the Chapel, was just named the next President of Calvin Theological Seminary.
While thrilled for Neal and the seminary community, I must admit to feeling a bit sad that the college would be losing the full-time service of such a gifted writer, speaker and counselor. (But then, that's probably what the seminary community felt like a few years ago when the college plucked Neal from the seminary faculty to be the first-ever Dean of the Chapel.)
Neal is a special person, able to inspire a room full of academics, yet also respect and communicate clearly with all community members. Is there ever a word he uses in an address that isn't necessary? I've never heard it, not one!
Over my years at Calvin, I've been developing a list of "best speeches." I remember Ed Ericson's 1985 commencement address, "This Good Spot of Earth"; Joel Carpenter's dedication speech in front of the engineering building, "Zion's Repair Shop"; Mary Ann Walters' funny and inspirational acceptance speech upon being named Presidential Exemplary Teacher; and even a late entry, Quentin Schultze's "East of Calvin," spoken at this spring's east campus dedication. But Neal Plantinga speeches dominate the list much like Elvis Presley owns the rankings of all-time number-one rock-'n'-roll hits.
In addition, he and office partner Sue Rozeboom have successfully blended with Chaplain Dale Cooper and chapel coordinator Cindy de Jong to provide a wonderful and winsome weekly chapel schedule that draws all members of the Calvin community to a regular rhythm of worship. Many of Neal's chapel talks draw crowds about as large as the Friday morning hymn sings.
Off campus, Neal's talks around the country and written pieces in national publications have provided insight to many and attention to the unique integration of faith and learning happening at Calvin.
Well, Neal's been chosen by the seminary and approved by the Christian Reformed Synod. He will partner with the faculty, staff and students of the seminary to do amazing things in the future. There's no doubt about that. But, gratefully, he left the college a special going-away gift.
"Engaging God's World" is the working title of the primer on the Reformed perspective that Neal has just completed for the new "Developing a Christian Mind" (DCM) class. One of the first components of the new core curriculum, the DCM course will be required of all first-year Calvin students in their first interim at the college. Neal's book, subtitled "A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning and Living," is the text.
And what a book! It is written straight to the heart and soul, reminding us of the longing we all have for God, the hope that is a deep part of our beings and the dream of shalom that comes to us night and day. For students, Neal takes them through the basic tenets of the Reformed Christian perspective, with an emphasis on academic vocation and listening to God's call as a young person finding her gifts.
There will be another edition released some months ahead by Eerdman's Publishing that is a bit less college-oriented and more for the general reader.
Neal's gift was a great help to me this year as I puzzled out God's working and will in my own life. The straightforward text and meaningful vision of God's relationship with us was electricity for a wondering heart. I wait with excited anticipation to see how the Spirit will work through the book and the skilled mentors as first-year students encounter, head on and right away, the challenging call to be "agents of renewal."
Neal, thank you. We at the college were supposed to give you a going-away gift, but true to the thesis running through your book, you turned that tradition upside down.
And Neal, one more thing. While it's true that the college and seminary are officially separate institutions now, and even though I believe that formal parting was important to do for a variety of reasons, I think it is time we figured out ways to be better partners and community members again. Together, we can do many creative and helpful things for the Kingdom.
Oh, and maybe, just maybe, we'd get a couple of new speeches out of the deal.