President Stoltzfus speaks during the 2019 Baccalaureate Service.

President’s baccalaureate speech: “Written on your heart”

Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus, at the 121st Goshen College Commencement Weekend Baccalaureate Service on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

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Welcome to you seniors on the day of your graduation from Goshen College! Welcome to all of the parents and loved ones who are here with you and with us this morning. Welcome to the faculty and other employees of Goshen College who celebrate this day with you.

In the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

it is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in this broken world.

And as Taylor said, you might feel a little unsteady. So here are the rules for this time and this place. This is a sanctuary. Sink into the refuge of this place this morning. You are welcome here, and not a thing is required of you!

I want to focus this morning on one verse from the text that the seniors chose, selected from the book of Proverbs:

Let your life be shaped by integrity,[a]

with truth written upon your heart.

What I want to say to you this morning, is that this is possible. More than possible, this is true: when you let your life be shaped by integrity, you will find truth written upon your heart.

First, just think for a moment about your heart. Just rest, and feel it for a moment, beating away faithfully inside you.

  1. The average heart is about the size of your two hands clasped together.
  2. Your heart will beat about 115,000 times today and every day.
  3. And with those beats, your heart moves about 2,000 gallons of blood every day.

There are more than one thousand instances of the word “heart” in the Bible. The scriptures regard the heart as the center of what is most holy within each one of us.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13) 

Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Matthew 22:37) 

I am a scientist who has studied the human heart, and its physicality within our chest is real and true: its strong muscle, its electrical connections, its valves and veins and arteries. This is real and true.

But this is also real and true: there exists a center of our spirituality, and we feel it within our chest.

And there is truth written there. Being made in the image of God is to bear these truths, and to live a full life is to discover and reveal them.

The heart will teach us what is worth living for.

As you go forth from Goshen College, I know that you bear these truths and I hope that you will bear witness to these truths.

It is written on your heart that you are worthy. Just by being you. You are of profound value as a person.

The most powerful thing that you can do in world is stand on the firm ground of your faith and claim your worthiness.

Show up in your full humanity and bear witness to that. I hope that your experiences at Goshen College have helped to provide with you with the capacity to show your humanity, even in places that feel hostile. And to do so without diminishing the humanity of others.

It is written on your heart that you are made for beauty and for wholeness.

Wholeness is not a luxury. Beauty is not optional. We are made for these things, and that is why we long for them and we strive so hard to attain them. I have so much admiration and respect for what you have done here at Goshen!

It is why you create crazy and beautiful things in the ceramics lab and the art hanging in the Hershberger Art Gallery, why you bring your whole selves onto the Umble Center Stage, or leave the Sauder stage literally in sweat and tears. It is why we gasp and scream when you have made the perfect assist, the buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the astounding throw or run or strike. And why you fill whole white boards finding your way to a mathematical proof late into the night.

It is also why we hurt over relationships gone wrong, when we see people suffer. Why we learn to listen, fully present, to people’s pain, why we have difficult conversations, strive for justice and reconciliation, and why we must talk much much more about how our planet is suffering and what we can do about it.

It is written on your hearts that you are made to give and receive human love and connection.

The joyful life is lived in a kind of sacred economy; an economy of compassion that connects. Love on the move, love being expressed and received, the fabric of mercy in which we live and move and have our being. This is where we find joy.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that the key to world peace lies in remembering that “we belong to each other.”

And let it be said that human love and connection opens us to loss.

Six days ago, on the morning after Easter, Goshen College Professor of Music Deb Detwiler passed away, in her home surrounded by people who loved her. Many of in the GC community experienced her extraordinary leadership of our choirs, especially the Women’s World Choir that she created. The loss of her leaves us broken-hearted.

I remember well the first time when I first understood that compassion is not just a nice fuzzy word–And I mean really understood that compassion can hurt. I even remember thinking, if this is what compassion feels like, I don’t like it.

But it is written on our hearts.

And oh the joy! Oh the power of belonging to one another, even through profound loss. Scientific research is revealing that social connection is the strongest predictor of human happiness.

Yes, even when we realize that cancer is in our bones.

Deb stayed connected to her family, to her church community and to this Goshen College community right on through the unwelcome, unchosen journey of these past several months. She stayed connected by being present in honest conversations, and through the powerful medium of music!

In February, after accepting that her cancer was this time untreatable, she took the chamber choir on a tour of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, during which our young and healthy students struggled to avoid fatigue and the flu. I believe she was able to do this because she was so deeply connected to love and beauty and to her students.

There is an Irish saying: “You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.”

Choir was that for Deb. Let us be that place for one another.

When you live from your heart you will experience sorrow, and pain, alongside delight and joy. To live from your heart is to be vulnerable.

This is not weakness! This is courage. The heart dares to be vulnerable because it is strong and powerful.

In the 14th century, the Persian poet Hafiz wrote:


Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.


The terrain around here


Far too




It is written on your hearts that you have a purpose. Your life has meaning. And all of that knowledge in your head will sing when it is used in heart-felt service to the world.

That is why our motto is Culture for Service.

Today, this day of your graduation, is about you. But ultimately, your life is not about you. You are made to be part of something larger than yourself. And I hope that your experiences at Goshen College have given you some tastes of that: on your team, in a choir, in a production, as you have protested or advocated for a cause, when you have done research.

In modern Western thought, we have made tremendous scientific and economic progress, and we have also made the terrible cultural mistake of separating head knowledge from heart truth.

We have become infatuated with head knowledge, and we have allowed it to become detached from the truth written upon our hearts.

In the midst of the astonishing scientific advances of the last century, physicist Albert Einstein said:

“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of [hu]mankind.

The Proverb says:

Let your life be shaped by integrity,[a]

with truth written upon your heart.

A life shaped by integrity is a life that integrates head and heart, reason and love.

Jesus, the master cardiologist says: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Let your life be shaped by integrity, with truth written upon your heart.

Bring our courageous, creative and compassionate leadership to the communities in which you will live, work and play.

Use your knowledge with the wisdom and purpose of your heart.

And may these truths written upon your heart lead you to serve the world with love.