Fall 2012 Opening Convocation - August 29th

Opening Convocation
August 29, 2012

"A More Excellent Way"
David Alexander, President

Today is a significant day in the life of the university. The Opening Convocation symbolizes the beginning of the academic year. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, members of our distinguished Faculty, joining me here on the stage of the Brandt Center, and our University Staff, I say "welcome!" Welcome to Northwest Nazarene University and the 2012-2013 school year! It is a privilege to welcome back the classes of 2013, 14 and 15. And, it is a particular privilege to welcome our new freshmen, members of the Class of 2016. If you are new to the NNU student body this fall, freshmen and transfers, would you please stand?

The Opening Convocation is a time set aside to declare who we are, who you are, and what we seek and expect from God and each other. Today we speak of essential things. Fundamental things. Things at the core of NNU.

Today, I speak of story and the way stories unfold. We are all shaped by story. We live out our existence within the context of shared stories, these stories become our guiding narratives. Neal Postman says it this way, "Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future." (Postman, The End of Education, p. 7)

Today, I speak of your story, NNU's story, stories of this world and most importantly, God's story. These stories are not fiction. They are real. Each story is unique. It is autobiographical. Each story's plot is incomplete. It is in the process of being written; it is an unfolding record of your story and the way you are choosing to live your life. 

There are those who say there are only a few basic plots in life and literature, primary ways a story can unfold. From a literary standpoint there is value in identifying such plot essentials. Here's an example of a list of nine plot basics:

  1. The Quest
  2. Revenge
  3. Love
  4. Adventure
  5. The Chase
  6. One Against
  7. One Apart
  8. Power
  9. Allegory

James Scott Bell-Plot & Structure

But today, I'd like to make an even more basic point about the nature of story. I submit there are only two fundamental ways life's story can be lived:

  1. With God
  2. Without God

This not only applies to people, but in ways implicit and explicit, it also applies to governments, societies, cultures, families, schools, and today, for our consideration, universities.

We are people seeking meaning. Our narratives, our stories are an attempt to find and make meaning. As Postman writes, "without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention." (Postman, p. 7)

Consider this; there are over 2,700 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Each of these colleges makes choices. What they are and what they are not. Consider also that there are over 19,000,000 college students in the United States this year. Each student makes choices. Where they intend to go, what they intend to know and do. 

Each college has a story. Each student has a story. It is the co-mingling of these two things, the nature of the place and the nature of the person that yields the life-shaping narrative, the way that transforms. 

Across America different schools are living out different stories, pursuing different ways. And, I'm sorry to say, the stories being written and guiding many institutions these days are hollow, limited only to the material and the temporal; they actively ignore many of the things we hold most dear in our story. 

These schools, guiding metaphors, their meta-narratives, are incomplete, insufficient, in a sense they are pursing false gods. Neal Postman identifies several of these "gods that fail" in his book, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. Here are several of his gods, see if any of them sound familiar: 

  • Science & Technology god
  • Economic Utilitarian god
  • Consumer god
  • [Radical Individualist god]

Neal Postman-The End of Education 

Many universities in America are ordered around these "gods that fail". 

Science & Technology god, this story provides answers to many the physical mysteries of life, but is deafeningly silent when it comes to articulating the meaning of life. As Postman writes, "we can make trains, and make them run on time, but if we do not know where they should go and why, why bother?" (Postman, p. 61)

Economic Utilitarian god "a passionless god, cold and severe. But it makes a promise, and not a trivial one. Addressing the young, it offers a covenant of sorts with them: If you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done. Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community." The motto of the Economic Utilitarian god, you are what you do for a living (Postman, p. 27) 

Consumer god, its gospel, you are what you acquire. 

[I have added another god to the list, drawing upon Hauerwaus and Keuhne.] Radical Individualist god, you are free to do whatever you want (as long as it harms no one). 

In our view these gods have been found wanting. They do not provide that which humankind seeks most fervently, ultimate meaning. Yet professors, departments, students and alumni in schools once thought to be bastions of wisdom and understanding have traded the heritage of old stories for new narratives that lead to nowhere. As Postman tellingly writes, "To be nowhere means to live in a barren culture, one that offers no vision of the past or future, no clear voice of authority, no organizing principles." (Postman, p. 13) 

Northwest Nazarene University is aware of the gods that fail; that don't provide sufficient meaning to order a university or a life. It is my duty and privilege to declare, we have chosen a different story. The NNU story, the NNU narrative is linked directly to our view of reality centered in the Triune God. 

Our path, our way is founded upon God in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself. This is our guiding narrative. This is what makes us a university. This is what unites and defines our way. 

I want you to know our story. The NNU way is well-recorded in our mission, our motto and our vision. 

NNU Mission

The mission of Northwest Nazarene University is the transformation of the whole person. Centered in Jesus Christ, the NNU education instills habits of heart, soul, mind and strength to enable each student to become God's creative and redemptive agent in the world.

We pursue more than skill, the ability to make better widgets with your life. We don't merely offer degrees that give you access to a profession, though that is one of the outcomes of our work. We seek something more. 

Our first President, H. Orton Wiley said it this way: "Northwest Nazarene [University] has caught the vision of a need for a true Christian education. . . . As an institution, this college seeks not to conform to the ideals of worldly institutions; it seeks rather in all things the Kingdom of God." 

It was in this spirit that in 1918 he chose the University motto: 

NNU Motto

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.   Matthew 6:33

The way NNU has chosen is the way made possible by the one who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Jesus is our vision and our guide. We say it this way: 

NNU Vision

Guided by a vision of the Kingdom of God, Northwest Nazarene University seeks a more excellent way, to be a transformative learning community expressing the love of Jesus by forming scholars, nurturing disciples, serving the church, shaping the culture, redeeming the world. 

Are you beginning to notice the common threads in each of these statements? We are not focused on, or driven by the ways of the world. Northwest Nazarene University has heeded God's call and is seeking "a more excellent way"! 

The NNU Mission and the NNU Vision are so important to me and to this place that I want you to learn them, to memorize them. When you leave today, you'll get a card with the mission and vision statements on it. Recite either one to me from memory and I will give you $5. As cheesy as this may sound, I want you to know what guides and motivates us as we seek to be transformative agents in your lives and the life of this university. 

OK, you say. So what? What difference will any of this make in my pursuit of my college degree? How does NNU's pursuit of "a more excellent way" have any effect on my story, my goals? 

Excellent questions. I'm glad you asked them. Let's start with two key parts of speech, nouns and verbs. You remember them don't you?

  • Noun-person, place, thing
  • Verb-action, occurrence, state of being

Most students show up at college in pursuit of a noun. I want to be _____, you fill in your own blank. A college education and your college degree are too often seen as the pursuit of a "thing". You've been programmed for years with the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Too many see the way of college as a means to an end. If this sounds like one of the gods that fail, it is, economic utilitarianism. In our view this is not enough. Life is more than this. 

Life is a not a noun. Life is a verb. (The only time you become a noun is on your resume or at your funeral.) Life is being in a state of ever changing action and activity, the emergence of you occurs along the way. Life is process "doing and being" body and spirit. Life is verb. Look around, a room full of verbs. 

You have chosen to be here, to merge your way with our way. The convergence of these two ways, yours and ours, will shape you and us. We have four years to learn and live with you and your story. We believe that that process is at the heart of what we mean when we say we are seeking "a more excellent way". 

The nature and essence of what we consider to be "a more excellent way" can best be described with verbs. Four verb phrases: 

 A More Excellent Way 

  • To Seek
  • To Learn
  • To Love
  • To Serve

The NNU way is an invitation to live in the dynamic of these verbs. We believe they have meaning for you and your story on multiple levels. 

You have come to college seeking many things, fulfilling work, lasting friendships, a sense of calling, meaning and purpose. We want to encourage you in your seeking. Do you know the words of the seeker? 

To Seek 

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Matthew 6: 19-21 

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. Matthew 6: 33 

We are all seekers. You came here seeking an education. Indeed, we offer an excellent education. It requires your vigorous and active seeking. We also believe education is pursued to shape the person, not merely transfer a skill. Your story should be more than learning technical means to achieve financial ends. We want to engage you in seeking to explore the very nature of reality and your place in it. 

Let's turn the page. 

To Learn

Make me know Thy ways, O Lord; Teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me, For Thou art the God of my salvation; For Thee I wait all the day.  Psalm 25: 4, 5 

Not only are we seekers, we are learners. We believe education is the pursuit of truth. NNU explores knowledge, the wonder of God's creative activity, the story of human civilization and achievements in the arts, sciences and professions. But ultimately, we believe Jesus is truth incarnate; therefore, we pursue Christ. 

We are life-long learners and we want to partner with you on life's way. To help you identify your vocational calling, and then experience and master the necessary knowledge, understanding and training in a chosen field. 

But beyond that, we want you to join us in seeking and learning of the Lord, His wisdom and His ways, read Psalm 25: 4, 5 with me. 

Some people question whether or not the third verb phrase belongs in college, to love. Facts, data, knowledge and understanding. Isn't that our currency? Not love. 

But hear these words: 

To Love

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12: 28-31 

Love is essential. To exclude it from the core of who we are would be to ignore the two greatest commandments God calls us to obey. Love is central to pursuing "a more excellent way". 

Love is something better experienced than studied. Love exists in relationship, with God, with yourself, with your neighbor. Relationships exist in community. Welcome to the NNU community. 

We will continually invite you to seek and learn to know God and love God. From that knowing there will emerge a desire to love self and others. Not with a love defined by the world, but with a love rooted in the very nature of God. 

The verb phrase "To Love" often takes the form of another verb, to serve. 

To Serve

And so when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at table again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right; for so I am. "If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you." John 13: 12-15 

We believe an education that seeks, learns and loves results in a call to service. NNU teaches the importance of a life of servanthood as modeled by Jesus Christ. God calls us to serve the least and the lost, to use our vocations to become agents of transformation. 

This day, and every day you are here at NNU, you are writing your story. I stand here this morning to invite you, to challenge you, to live in the adventure of His way, His story. Open the doors of your plans, take down the fences on your dreams and join us in daring to live in: 

A More Excellent Way 
A Century-long Story 

  • To Seek
  • To Learn
  • To Love
  • To Serve

May God bless you and may God bless NNU. 

Recommended Reading:

Burtchaell, James, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges & Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. 
Marsden, George, The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 
Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Vintage, 1996.