Fall 2008 Opening Convocation Message

Fall 2008 Opening Convocation Message - 8/27/08

Listen to the recorded version here:


Fixed On Jesus


Good morning.  Today the people of Northwest Nazarene University have gathered here to welcome, consecrate and declare.  Assembled in this hall are the participants in a unique covenant of heart, soul, mind and body, to each of you: professor and student, master teacher and apprentice learner, administrative servant and staff provider, I say welcome.  In gathering here today, we come to consecrate this year and all that it holds, its challenges and opportunities, lessons to be learned and discoveries to be made, we understand that we share a sacred opportunity for growth, nurture and transformation; therefore we seek God's presence and blessing as we consecrate this year to Him.  This time of convocation, is an important time for Northwest Nazarene University; we, her teachers, students, staff and administration gather together to declare our intent to God and each other.   It is my privilege to make that declaration.

For almost one century, Northwest Nazarene University has existed to educate the whole person.  Across the years, we have articulated that commitment by creating an educational process that pursues both intellectual and spiritual development.  Furthermore, our institutional pursuits are centered firmly in the person of Jesus Christ: for He is the way, the truth and the life.  We have structured ourselves so that those who participate in the NNU educational experience will grow in Christ-like character, pursue academic excellence, apply their knowledge by creatively engaging the world and serve their world through a call to social responsiveness.

We have gone beyond these lofty outcomes to articulate and design specific learning and knowing experiences, to provide our students with the particular skills, knowledge and understanding that make real our institutional habits of heart, soul, mind and body.  We believe this is the best way, the right way to pursue what is true and good and beautiful.  It is our firm belief that the wholly educated person is best equipped to become what God intends citizens of His Kingdom to be.

We think God has Kingdom plans for this world, not just the next.  We think the educational experience we engage in is a part of that plan.  There is transformative value and substance in what we do here.  Listen to the words of James Freedman in his work, Idealism and Liberal Education:

I have great faith in today's undergraduates.  I do not share the conventional wisdom that today's generation of college students lacks idealism and seeks only prevocational education, in the heady pursuit of material success. I believe that today's undergraduates possess an untapped capacity for idealism and altruism, for which our society does not provide adequate outlets.  They are not so much indifferent to idealism as uninspired by their elders, not so much misled in their values as left to flounder on their own.The ultimate test of a liberal education ought to be its impact on the intellectual and moral lives of students.

NNU is a place where the capacity for individual and corporate transformation can be sought and is taught.  For NNU is a place where God is at work in higher education through the Body of Christ.  Therefore, our perspective is shaped and guided by God and His revelation of Himself, to the people of Israel, through the scriptures, in the person of His Son Jesus Christ and in the presence of His Holy Spirit.  Consequently, the NNU culture we foster, the learning experiences we design, the very people we strive to be, are guided by our relationship with Him and His Word. 

As Albert Outler, late Wesleyan scholar noted, we must learn to "live in Scripture, on the growing edge of the human situation in any given age." We must learn to think Biblically, paying attention to the Christian past so we can appropriate the lessons already learned by Christians in other times and circumstances. The call to discipleship, which is at the heart of NNU's educational mission and experience, provides us with the opportunity "to transform human lives and human culture."

This morning I want to use an active metaphor to declare who I think NNU is and what NNU does.  Watch this clip with me:

Video Clip - Olympic 200 Meter Finals

I imagine that most of you recognize that clip.  It's the 200-meter finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Usain Bolt of Jamaica broke the 12-year-old world record held by Michael Johnson.  He is truly a remarkable athletic, he runs with an almost effortless spirit of joy.

Let me ask you a question.  What do you and I have in common with Usain Bolt, this Olympic champion?  Answer, we are all in a race. 

I think the experience of being in a race, with all of the preparation, the starting, persevering, training, endurance and competition, so vividly portrayed for us in the Olympics, is a powerful metaphor.  Couple that with this race-focused passage from the 12th Chapter of Hebrews, and we are provided with a wonderful metaphor for who we are and what we are about at NNU. 

Consider this, when you come to college you both enter and train for a race.  Ironically, you are simultaneously running in the very race for which you are training.  Unlike the physical race run by young Mr. Bolt, your race is greater in significance and longer in duration.  It is a race that comprises all of who you are, it is a wholistic challenge, it is the race of faith.  It is the race of life.

It should be noted that to run well requires discipline.  To successfully complete the race requires training.  Listen to the language of spiritual athletes in training in the passage from Hebrews 12.

Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress.  And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. 

The writer to the Hebrews goes on to remind the reader of God's active discipline, intended to make the believer stronger, a better runner.

Have you entirely forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you, his children?  He said, My child, don't ignore it when the Lord disciplines you, and don't be discouraged when he corrects you.  For the Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes those he accepts as his children.

As you endure this divine discipline remember that God is treating you as his own children.  Whoever heard of a child who was never disciplined?  If God doesn't discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children after all.  Since we respect our earthly fathers who disciplined us, should we not all the more cheerfully submit to the discipline of our heavenly Father and live forever?

For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how.  But God's discipline is always right and good for us because it means we will share in his holiness.  No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening, it is painful!  But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.

God is training us to run in the race in which He has entered us.  We are training for and running in a race of His design.  He is our trainer, He is our coach.  (You may recall other places in the scripture, where the training, pruning, and discipline are used as a metaphor for growth; remember James' call to consider trials a joy, or Jesus's story of the branches of the vine being pruned in order that they might bear more fruit.)  In all these instances, God's hand is at work in our lives, to guide us from who we were to what we might become, in order "to yield a quiet harvest of right living."

Well, what does all of this have to do with a college education?  There is a wonderful parallel between the discipline of the Lord for the race of life and the role of the university in life's race.  I want to go so far as to say that your college experience is in many respects an exercise in which you learn to live; it is here, within the disciplines of the university that you both train for, and run, life's race.

We, the faculty, take on the role of trainer and coach, nurturing, stretching, encouraging and cheering.  We have been called to come alongside you and foster your growth and endurance, to properly equip you for the race.  We want you to be fit for the life God calls you to.  We will expect strong performance from you.  When we don't get it, we will expect you to do it over until you get it right.  From the lab, to the laptop, from the rehearsal hall, to the seminar room, we shall conduct ourselves in ways that seek your growth and your good.  Your ability to race well has been entrusted to us, and though you may sometimes question and resist our guidance, please know that like your Heavenly Father and your earthly parents, we seek to train you to run the race to its successful completion.

To that end we will provide you with training across the learning disciplines as well as instruction in the disciplines of spiritual formation.  For NNU knows full well that life's race encompasses not only a sharp mind, but a well-nurtured heart, soul and body, able to love both neighbor and self.

Not only do we commit to train you for the race of life.  We believe it is our task to assist you in finding your place in the race.

Allow me to use another clip to illustrate.  The following scene is from the movie Chariots of Fire, winner of the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture.  It is the story of the British track team participating in the 1924 Olympics.  The movie focuses on Eric Liddle, born in China to missionary parents, he was fleet of foot and had to learn to balance his own call to missionary service with his love of running.  In the scene we are about to view Eric telling his sister Jennie of his decision to return to China to serve as a missionary, but, before returning to China he intends to run in the Olympic games, to exercise the physical gifts he has been given.

Let's watch.

Video Clip from Chariots of Fire

"Oh Jennie, God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." -- Eric Lydell

That is a line worth remembering, for it is emblematic of what we all hope and search for.  To find that place, that niche, where we know we are exercising the gifts and graces God has bestowed upon us.  That we live and move within His purpose and grace.

We want you to find your place in the race.  We want you to live your life in such a way that God delights in you and you find joy in him.  So we shall counsel and assess and listen and prod and coax, in order to provide you with experiences, both within and without the classroom, so you may inventory and ascertain your place in the race.  We want you to seek and sense God's call upon your life, and the place in His providence for you.

How do you find your place in the race?  Frederick Beuchner said it best, "the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Seek this place, train there, run there.

This passage of scripture and this metaphor provide us with another insight.  No one runs alone!  Those who have run before you, now cheer you on.  The words of Hebrews 12 echo the roll call of the saints in Hebrews 11 who have gone on before.

Since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress.  And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.

Many of you know what I mean by this, you are children of a family of faith; you have heard stories of grandparents and great grandparents who have run their race, and now they stand cheering you on.

You need to know that not only do we seek to coach and train you, NNU is a part of the cloud of witnesses.  We have been represented by a host of godly people who have run the race at NNU, people whose legacy has prepared the way for us.  They cheer us on and show us the way.   We benefit from their going before.  They are spiritual heroes.  Freedman champions this idea of looking to heroes past in life's journey, he writes, "heroes supply us with much of our moral substance.  They remind us of what is possible; they are exemplars of the best that humankind can be and do."  So who are NNU's heroes?  Who now stands and cheers for you?  Here is but a sample:

     H. Orton Wiley, our first president

     Louise Robinson, our first student turned missionary

     Olive Winchester, academic dean

     Bertha Dooley, feisty professor

     Thomas Mangum, trainer of nurses and doctors

     Thelma Culver

     Marian Washburn

     John Riley

     Double E. Hill

     Gilbert Ford

     Helen Wilson

These are but a sampling of scores of professors and administrators who have shown us how to run.  (And I haven't even mentioned the thousands of NNU alumni who now stand cheering you on.)  I think I want to say that even you have a responsibility to cheer on your fellow classmates. 

You may have noticed that I have yet to mention the best part of this passage and this metaphor.  We are in a race, being cheered on by those who have run the race, we are and will be disciplined, stretched, taught, and now it's time to run.  Are you ready?  How do we best run this race?  What is our focus, what is the prize for which we run?

One word.  Jesus

We run to Jesus.  We run with our eyes fixed on Jesus.  He is both the source of our faith and the goal of our faith.  He is both our vision and our prize.  Jesus is our ultimate role model, our hero.  We do well to recall that He was the smartest, kindest, wisest, most loving man to run this race.  He was tempted in everyway we are tempted and yet without sin.  He has shown us the posture of a life laid down  for those He loves.  In all things and in all ways, we seek to model ourselves after Him.  Hear these words:

Let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus.       

He is the source and goal of our faith, author and perfecter of the race.

I understand that you come to college with many competing ideas, goals and assumptions.  The world, your friends and family, your own personal hopes, dreams and aspirations, all clamor for attention as you seek your place and direction in the race.  I am here to tell you that there is a better way to run the race.  As ironic and counter-intuitive as it sounds, I call you to shape your life's race based on something unseen, and yet so real that it will guide all you are and all you do.  That something, that someone, is Jesus.

The writer to the Hebrews provides us Moses as an example in chapter 11.      

It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt.  He was not afraid of the king.  Moses kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible.

Don't you love the faith-filled posture of that phrase; "he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible."

Let's look at one more clip from Chariots of Fire.  Eric Lydell has declined to participate in the 100 meters, the event he was favored to win, because it was being held on a Sunday.  And now he prepares to run in the 400 meters, a race he was not favored to win, and yet one where the crowd rallied round him as he ran.

Let's watch:

Video Clip from Chariots of Fire, Eric Lydell wins 400 meter race as crowds cheer him on.

Now I ask you.  Are you ready to run?

Let me let you in on a little secret.  Look around. We are all running too.  We are all, each and everyone of us, required to answer the call to run.  The choice is much more simple than the world would have us believe.  In reality, we are either running to Him or away from Him.  We are either preparing, to the best of our ability, to serve Him or we are actively or passively denying Him.  This statement is not reserved for the four walls of your church; I stand before you today as your university president and declare, you are running life's race at NNU.

I say to you this day, how do you choose to run?   On whom will you have your eyes fixed?  Will you listen to the cheers of those who have run before and those who run alongside you now?  Will you receive the discipline and training of the academic life, or will you succumb to the siren sounds of a world governed by self and instant gratification?  Will you keep your eyes on Jesus and learn and live in His version of success, where one's worth is measured in service and the giving of self in love of others.

Are you ready to run?

If so, hear these words:

Take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm with your shakey legs.  Mark out a straight path for your feet.  Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but will become strong.

So try to live in peace with everyone, and seek to live a clean and holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord.

Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God.

People of NNU, are you ready to run?

Then sing with me:

            I have decided to follow Jesus,

            I have decided to follow Jesus,

            I have decided to follow Jesus,

            No turning back, no turning back.