Fall 2009 Academic Convocation

Fall 2009 Academic Convocation - 09/02/09

Listen to the recorded version here:


ACADEMIC CONVOCATION ADDRESS

LEARNING & LIVING IN THE KINGDOM

By President David Alexander

 

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

 

I greet you this morning in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On behalf of the Trustees, Faculty, Administration and Staff of Northwest Nazarene University I say welcome to the 2009-2010 academic year.  First, welcome back to hundreds of returning students.  We are so delighted to see you once again.  We are eager to hear of your summers of service and study, work and relaxation.   Next, welcome to our new freshmen and transfer students.  May I ask all new students to please stand?  Would you join me in greeting the class of 2013?  You may be seated.  Finally, if I may take a moment of personal privilege, I'd like to ask those students who are joining us from other countries to please stand?  We say welcome!

At the beginning of the academic year we gather in a time of convocation.  This annual gathering is intended to be a unique blend of worship, reflection, declaration and challenge.  The university President and faculty stand before you, literally and symbolically, to offer words of inspiration, passion and purpose. 

This morning I want to direct our attention to consider important things in your life, in the life of the university and in our lives as God's children.  Let's begin by focusing first on you, the NNU student.  And lest you think we are out of touch and don't understand your predicament, let me provide photographic proof that every professor was once a freshman.

[Project David Alexander freshman ID]

Let's review "the questions"; you know what I'm talking about, the questions:

Freshmen

            Where are you going to college?

            What's your major going to be?

            What do you hope to do with that major?

            How long can "undeclared" be your major?

Seniors

            What do you intend to do when you graduate?

            What does that have to do with your major?

            Will you get a job or go to grad school?

            Do we really "like" each other?

Grown up versions of the basic Grade School question:

            What do you want to be when you grow up?

Can you relate to any of those questions?  If I have yet to capture your attention, or direct your thoughts, perhaps this movie clip will help:

[Monty Python, "what is your quest?" clip]

Though this is a cheesy example, the question is real.  I stand before you, this room filled with potential and possibility, and ask you, "What is your quest?" What is the purpose of your life?  What ends do you seek, what means will you pursue to achieve these ends?  If I were to ask you to take out a piece of paper, how would you define and describe the life you seek and what expectations do you have of your college experience?

Lest you think that 18-22 year-olds are the only ones with questions, universities have questions too. Recently, your faculty revisited what we identify as the core values and mission of NNU.  At the most fundamental level, we want to know, "What is the university for?" and "Who does it serve?" We believe that where you have come should shape who you become.   So, where do you, where do we, find answers to these questions, direction for our quest?

I believe God has a word for us, with answers and guidance and direction.  The Word of the Lord for this day is a prayer, first prayed by the Apostle Paul on behalf of the young church in Colossae as he sought to spur their spiritual growth and their understanding of life's meaning.  I love this 2000 year-old prayer, because it is fresh and new and vital this day.  It has great pertinence for you, for this university and for our place in God's story.  Hear the words of this prayer that I now pray for you:

For this reason,

Since the first day we heard it,

We have not ceased praying for you

And asking that you may be filled

With the knowledge of God's will

With all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

So that you might lead lives

Worthy of the Lord,

Fully pleasing to Him,

As you bear fruit in every good work

And as you grow in the knowledge of God.

May you be made strong

With all the strength that comes

From His glorious power,

And may you be prepared

To endure everything with patience,

While joyfully giving thanks

To the Father,

Who has enabled you

To share in the inheritance

Of the saints in the light.

He has rescued us

From the power of darkness

And transferred us into the Kingdom

Of His beloved Son,

In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

            Col. 1: 9-15

 

The words and concepts in this prayer, remind us that the important questions, asked by both students and the university, must be interwoven with the questions we ask about God, and the answers found in His purpose for His creation and our place in His plan.

In the midst of sorting out our individual reality, here is a fundamental principle.  You and I and Northwest Nazarene University are part of something bigger than ourselves.  Now, as obvious as that may sound to the ears of people who follow Christ, that is not how the vast majority of higher education has ordered itself.

Most contemporary universities, and the faculty and students in them, either ignore, privatize or deny the faith factor.  In a recent work entitled, The Decline of the Secular University by John Sommerville, the author notes that the major universities in the U.S. have lost touch with "people's most urgent questions" (9).  He writes, it's as if "universities muddle through with a big mystery at their center; a mystery in the shape of religion" (29).  Secular universities have failed to focus on first things. Stanley Hauerwas, in The State of the University, notes that we have lost sight of primary things, we have become so focused on technology and specialization that these fields have "become ends in themselves, producing people with no ends" (101).  Means have become ends; that which was meant to serve is now being served.  Questions of ultimate significance are marginalized or disregarded for fear of offending the relativist sensibility.

That is not the case here at Northwest Nazarene University.  Rather than excluding value and faith and religion from the fabric of our institutional being, we believe that these things are at the heart of who we are, what we study, the conclusions we reach and the action we take. You and I and this university exist within the greater panorama of God's activity. 

With that in mind, let's turn our attention back to you, to your quest.  To that host of partially answered, sometimes annoying, questions about you, your vocational aspirations, your definition of success, the goals you've set for yourself and the paths of life you are considering.  This prayer can serve as a guidepost; it identifies life's primary purpose, indeed, the very nature of our quest.

Be filled with the knowledge of God's will

With all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

Review the passage as I guide our thoughts.  Paul highlights the primary means to life's end.  That we might know God's will, and having knowledge of it, that we might have the wisdom and understanding to know how to apply it.

Consider this.  You are at a place where we seek to not only "know" the will of God, but to "do" the will of God.  Remember the prayer Jesus taught us to pray?  Finish it with me, "Thy will be . . . done."

Knowledge of His will enables us to live life as He has planned, to know and to do His will.

So that you might lead lives

Worthy of the Lord,

Fully pleasing to Him,

As you bear fruit in every good work

And as you grow in the knowledge of God.

You want to know what you are supposed to do with your life?  What you are supposed to be about?  These are words upon which to build your life.  Paul believes that we can learn to live within God's will in such a manner that we lead lives that actually please God, are worthy of us being called Christian, in leading this life we bear fruit in our actions and grow in our knowledge of Him, our relationship with Him.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from His glorious power,

And may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,

While joyfully giving thanks to the Father,

How is all this possible?  My ability to know Him, His will, to please Him, bear fruit for Him?  Who makes this happen?  Good news.  He does.

You can't do this by yourself.  Which, by the way, is a fundamental error on the part of many Christians, seeking to become like Jesus on your own battery power.  No, only He can grant you His power to enable you to live life with patience and joy.

Who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness

And transferred us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son,

In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

All of this is possible because He has redefined reality.  He has rescued you; He's forgiven you and redeemed you; He has transferred you into His Kingdom and enables you to share in the inheritance of His illuminating, guiding light that is granted to all true believers, in Him, we can see how to live.

You seek particular answers about particles of life, the possibilities and probabilities of choices you anticipate making this week, this year, soon after you graduate.  I stand before you this morning to make sure that you understand that your university believes that before anything else knowing Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior is the heart and soul of life,s quest.  Begin and end and live here.  This is the ultimate aim of life, the goal of each and every quest represented in this hall.  All other questions and quandaries find their answer and meaning in Him.

We believe this so strongly that Northwest Nazarene University has organized itself around this reality.  Allow me to take a moment to tell you about the nature and design of this place.

At the center, the core, of who we are is Jesus.

We believe that the primary quest of humankind is the quest for meaning and understanding and that that search begins and ends in Jesus Christ! "All things in heaven and earth have been created through Him and for Him." "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."

This Jesus has come and lived among us and declared that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  He calls us to come into His Kingdom, to become members of His body, the Church.  Consequently, we believe that this university is a Kingdom Community, part of His greater Kingdom.

We are Kingdom citizens, you and I.  We assemble as Christ-centered disciples within His Kingdom.  We have a mission, we have been given a quest, the work of Christ's body; as N.T.Wright states in Simply Christian, we are "to announce to the world that Jesus is its Lord.  This is the "good news," and when it's announced it transforms people and societies. God intends to put the world to rights; he has dramatically launched this project through Jesus.  Those who belong to Jesus are called, here and now, in the power of the Spirit, to be agents of that putting-to-rights purpose." (204)  That's why you'll hear a great deal at NNU about creative engagement and social responsibility.  These are Kingdom Community concepts.

This Christ-centered Kingdom Community called NNU, is a living thing.  It is charged with the energy and activity of living in relationship, with Jesus and each other. As administration and faculty we order the university's time and activity around fundamental Jesus principles.   Let me quickly identify four dimensions of the NNU experience.

First, NNU is a place of LOVE.

I'm not sure that any of our literature, our website or our promotional rhetoric uses the word love.  But I can assure you.  Love permeates all we do and are.  The love of which I speak is not a love fashioned by this world, it is the love of Jesus.  As John reminds us, it is not a love of word or tongue, but of deed and truth.  We love because He first loved us.  Remember, the greatest commandments reside in love:  love of God, love of self, love of neighbor.  We labor and learn and live in the love found in Him.  We want you to learn this here, so you can take it out there.  NNU seeks to be a place of love.

Second, NNU is a place of WISDOM.

We live in a world saturated by data.  TMI is more than a clever acronym; we are surrounded by too much information, a sea of disconnected data, lacking in meaning and context.

Consequently, we think and teach with the knowledge that God is present in all of our classes.  It is worth noting that this is not the case in the secular academy.  As Stanley Hauerwas notes, "it is no secret that theology is no longer considered a necessary subject in the modern university." (12)  We believe differently; if Jesus is our center, the source and incarnation of all that is true, then knowledge of God should transcend buildings and be on everyone's mind and lips and disciplines.  As Hauerwas writes, "theology is a . . . mode of reflection on how and what Christians believe about the way things are in the light of our conviction that the way things are has been created by God." (12) We recognize a hierarchy of learning:  from data, to information, to knowledge, to understanding, to mastery, to wisdom.  We exist as a wisdom community to provide you, guide you, in finding temporal and ultimate meaning.  With Paul we pray that you will be filled with the knowledge of God's will with all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  This is our academic distinctive.  NNU seeks to be a place of wisdom.

Third, NNU is a place of TRANSFORMATION.

We strive to be authentically Wesleyan.  That means, by God's grace, we choose to grow up into the full measure and stature of Jesus Christ.  We believe that with the Spirit's enablement Christlikeness is possible now, in this world. That is God's transformational intent for us, as citizens of His Kingdom.  We are to seek after His righteousness.  NNU does not require a series of religion courses so one can know about God, we seek to know God. 

We hunger to live the life He has designed and destined for us.  As Paul prayed:

So that you may lead lives

Worthy of the Lord,

Fully pleasing to Him,

As you bear fruit in every good work

And as you grow in the knowledge of God.

We commit to foster the process of becoming like Him.  In chapel, in the class, in wing Bible studies and spiritual formation groups, we want every member of this Kingdom community to be engaged in the God-called, Spirit-empowered quest for Christlikeness.  NNU seeks to be a place of transformation.

Fourth, NNU is a place of SERVICE.

Those of you who are new to us will soon discover that we don't think your plans and plots begin and end in you.  We think we are all part of a greater activity, the work of God.  As N.T. Wright compellingly states in Simply Christian, "God's future has arrived in the present, has arrived in the person of Jesus. [Consequently] heaven and earth and future and present, overlap and interlock."

We now participate with and for Jesus in setting the world right.  Therefore, we will work to find ways to serve, on campus, in the community, in places of darkness and hunger, around the corner and around the world.  We don't do this out of a sense of moral duty; we do this out of a heart of Christ-filled love.  To lead by serving is our calling, to bear fruit in good works, fruit that ripens via our abiding relationship with Him.  Hear me when I say this, your first duty of service is to your studies. As good stewards of our craft and discipline, we commit to provide you with excellent academics and we expect academic excellence from you.  This is your service to God; to explore and develop the gifts and aptitudes He has granted you.  In time, this will allow you to acquire skills and develop habits of heart and mind so you may bear greater fruit for Him.  Indeed, NNU seeks to be a place of service.

I began with a clip, let me close with a clip.  This clip is taken from The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Gandalf has just told Frodo Baggins he and his friend Samwise Gamgee must leave their home, the shire, and take with them the ring of the dark lord.  This scene finds them beginning their quest.

So, here we are.

You just thought you were going to the first chapel of the year and lo and behold, the president got up and told you that college is so much more than the acquisition of a degree, a union card to assure your path to success.

"This is it."

Whether you are a freshman or a senior, you continue to step farther away from home than you've ever been.

And now and for the days and weeks and months ahead you will be faced with choices.

You see, you and the people of this university are not the only ones with a quest, a cause.  God has a cause.  God in Christ is reconciling the world unto himself.

We must choose our place; our position in God's cause.  As N.T. Wright states, "it is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian:  to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God's new world, which he has thrown open before us." (237)

You have come into this place, this Christ-centered Kingdom community with its commitments to love, to wisdom, to transformation and to service, and we invite you to prepare, to study and stretch, to learn and inquire.  To learn to love by serving and to exhibit wisdom in ways that promote and establish God's Kingdom.

But you must choose.  Giving of one's best requires discipline and effort and commitment.  You can go through the college experience and get an education and leave here prepared, but not transformed.  Or you can choose to drink deeply of the things we hold dear.  For we seek to do more than equip you for the marketplace, we seek to equip you with the knowledge of His will, with all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

We want to covenant with you to help you find your place in His story. 

For one day, perhaps in May of 2010, or May of 2013, you will say,

"This is it."

You will take that step across the commencement stage, receive your diploma and leave this place.

When you do, we want you

To speak with words that sound like Him

            To walk with feet that go where he would go

            To stoop with knees that kneel where he would serve

            To touch with hands that heal and forgive on His behalf

            To hear with ears that recognize cries for help and comfort

            To think with godly wisdom, discerning right from wrong, the just from the                           unjust

            To beat with a heart that lovingly cares for all you meet

            To proclaim the freedom of God found in Christ, both now and forevermore!

 

Selected Reading:

Sommerville, C. John.  The Decline of the Secular University. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hauerwas, Stanley.  The State of the University: Academic Knowledge and the Knowledge of God. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Wright, N.T.  Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  San Francisco: Harper, 2006.