Whitworth College Fall 2003 Convocation Address
Sept. 3, 2003
This past July 1 happened to be my 10th anniversary of coming to Whitworth. And, by pure coincidence, I had set it aside to think about the future rather than reflecting on the past.
When I do look in the rear view mirror, I see mostly students, faculty and staff, and the warm relationships that have made this such a good place to work. I have to admit that I do catch myself contrasting the quality of the 1993 campus with what we have today, but at the top of my reflection list are the people and events that define us. However, this past Sunday when there was a power failure, I did remember the two times I canceled classes. One cancellation was for the great ice storm that brought down more than 130 trees on campus and left us without power. Some of you remember how adventuresome the blackout seemed at first. We were all macho about how we could handle it; that is until we noticed the toilets didn't flush, at which point we promptly closed the school.
And then the most celebrated cancellation came in March of 1996. Our men's basketball team had reached the semi-final round of the national championship in Boise, Idaho. I couldn't help but ask myself, "If we make it to the finals tonight, how cool would it be to cancel school and take buses to the game?" I tried to think who might object. Mmm, faculty. They're so dedicated to learning. So I convened a meeting that included faculty president, John Yoder, to see how folks felt about announcing to the campus that "if we win tonight, we're going to Boise tomorrow." Dr. Yoder stroked his beard, pondered the possibility. He concluded that the faculty would be OK with this very special exception. "So what about you, John, how do you feel?" I asked. "Oh, I've already canceled my classes. I'm flying down there." So we made the announcement and that night Whitworth students were glued to their radios. When we were ahead in the first half it was party-time. And when we got behind by 10 points in the second half, there was an outbreak of homework all over campus. And when we won the game, the road trips began.
So these past 10 years have been good. But, as I said, my thoughts these days are on the next 10 years? What is our highest hope for Whitworth College? In the next few minutes I am going to tell you mine. I am going to tell you what would please me more than any new building, more than any magazine ranking, and more than a $10,000,000 gift (but not as much as a $50,000,000 gift).
I would like Whitworth to become the world capitol of grace and truth. I would like us to bleed grace and truth. I would like to overhear some guy in a sports bar say, "sure Gonzaga has a great basketball team, but how about that grace and truth up there at Whitworth?"
Grace and truth. We parents are usually ridiculous when it comes to answering our kids' first questions about God. I remember flushing some dead goldfish down the toilet then being quizzed by our two year-old daughter, "Where's Grumpy, Dad?" I mumbled something about goldfish heaven. Of course, when she teased out of me the particular route Grumpy took to heaven, she asked if God was in the toilet, and if we'd get flushed down the toilet, and a bunch of other dumb questions that were totally my fault. I think the best way to answer the questions about God is by pointing. That's what John the Baptist did when he was standing on the roadside with two of his disciples and pointed at Jesus and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God."
John the disciple, who recorded John the Baptist's pointing incident and with no shortage of modesty described himself as "the disciple Jesus loved," used words to point in the 14th verse of his gospel. After starting his gospel with a grand, third-person statement about how the world was created by Christ the Word, John shifts into the first person plural and sums it up, "here it is in a nutshell folks, the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth."
Grace and truth. I'm going to sound very Zen here for a moment, because I would like to argue that the essence of the universe can be found in the essence of the Creator, and John reports that the essence of the Creator is grace and truth. So, if you believe you are made in the image of God, then you must understand that you will not function properly if you ignore your essence - grace and truth. Although our genes got contaminated in the Garden of Eden, and we haven't exactly cleaned them up along the way, the inclination to live by grace and truth is deeply embedded in our moral and spiritual DNA. For this reason, you will malfunction as a friend, you will malfunction as a spouse, you will malfunction as a parent, and you will malfunction as a Christian -- if you suppress grace and truth. It is a primary source of joy. It is the essence of who God is and it is the essence of how we are created.
Grace and truth. What did grace and truth look like to Jesus? One day a group of religious leaders somehow caught a woman in the act of adultery, an act carrying an automatic sentence. "So, we caught her," they boasted as they pushed the woman in front of Jesus. "What are you going to do, Jesus? The law says she must be stoned." Well, you know the story. Jesus suggested whoever was without sin to cast the first stone, and he didn't get any volunteers. So now it's just Jesus and the woman. Jesus, who'd been writing something in the sand during this exchange, looks up and says to the woman, "Where did your accusers go? Did they condemn you?" "No," she answered. And Jesus said, "neither do I" -- grace -- "don't do it again" -- truth.
Grace and truth. There is certain eco-system to grace and truth. We can't jack up one to make up for a shortage of the other. Truth without grace is harsh, usually self-centered and very un-Christ-like. It makes the teller feel good, and leaves the receiver feeling kicked in the teeth. Grace without truth is deceptively permissive, often lazy, and equally un-Christ-like. It allows us to become comfortable in our ignorance or denial of the truth.
Grace and truth. What happens when the ecology of grace and truth is lost? First, I have observed over the years that grace ceases to be grace if it lacks truth. And truth ceases to be truth if it lacks grace. Now, I don't need to dwell much on grace ceasing to be grace when it lacks truth, because your parents explained this to you just before they nailed you. "Honey, it's because I love you that I must ground you for the rest of your life." "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thanks for the love, dad." But on the other hand, is it grace when we permissively allow our friends or relatives to take dangerous paths? Is it grace when we shield people we love from the unpleasant consequences of their actions, allowing them to continue in self-deception? No. Grace without truth is not grace at all.
But it can also be argued that truth without grace cannibalizes truth. About six months after I graduated from college I was doing youth work in a church that was divided on a very important issue. One day the main leader on one side of the issue invited me out to lunch. Not more than 10 minutes into the meal, I realized that I was the lunch. After he got done blasting me, I grunted through tears and anger the only thing that made sense to me. "I quit." Over the years, I've reflected on that beating in search of anything that could be helpful to me. Happily, I've come up with some rules for all of you who want to pummel me with the truth: First, I will have a hard time hearing truth if I am busy defending myself; second, I will have a hard time identifying truth if the assault feels like it's more for your good than for mine; third, I am not capable of accepting truth from you if the attack feels personal; and fourth, I will stop thinking about truth if you make claims about my motives; only I knew my motives -- and I would rather you ask me what they are than tell me what you think they are. So for me, and I suspect every other human being in our culture, without grace you will lose credibility and any hope for truth-telling will be destroyed.
Grace and truth. At the most primal level of our human relationships, we need grace and truth together. For those of you who have come to Whitworth holding religious convictions that lie outside the Christian faith, I would bet that you can find reverence for grace and truth in your faith or world view. It is how we are made. Christians have no monopoly on grace and truth. In fact, Christian history has shameful examples of graceless attacks on those who disagree with them. And there are shameful attacks that have happened on this campus, all in the name of Christian truth. And, ironically, when these attacks have happened it is because we have denied the truth. The truth is that we see through a glass dimly. The truth is that we cannot fully explain an infinite God. The truth is that we know God by faith and by faith alone. The truth is that this God with whom we have bludgeoned others is the same God whose Bible says way more about humility and love than any particular sin, except for maybe the sin of pride. Am I suggesting that Christians water down the truth? No. I am suggesting that we bathe our criticisms in grace. Am I suggesting that we avoid satire and sarcasm and teasing? Of course not. I am simply suggesting that we be gracious in our honesty.
Now, I don't want you to cheer and I don't want you to groan at what I'm about to say. I flat out love how much fun we have at Whitworth, but this morning grace and truth for me is that I don't find much good in the kind of sexual innuendo that was a part of last night's fun, both during and after Mock Rock. Do I condemn anyone? No, my level of righteousness barely qualifies me to criticize, say nothing of condemn. The awareness of God's grace toward me makes it easy for me to feel plenty of grace toward others. But if I am a person of truth, I cannot stand here as if I'm feeling fine about last night.
The true Christian story is all about BOTH grace and truth. When humanity rebelled against God, it was only God's grace that could keep us from condemnation. So the cry of Reformer Marin Luther became, sola gratia, grace alone that saves us. But with all due respect to the entire Protestant Reformation (and to ASWC president, Ben Metcalf, a fine Lutheran), Luther was wrong. Sure, it is grace alone if you're Luther, or Ben, or me for that matter, but it is not grace alone if you're God. Because God is God, it had to be gratia AND veritas. Grace and truth. It was truth that would not allow God to wave his grace wand and say, you're all fine -- sola gratia. Have a nice day. Humanity's sins had to be punished. Someone had to pay. That's truth. And the only one qualified to pay the price for the sins of the entire human race was God the Son. That's truth. So Jesus joined the human race and endured the greatest punishment that this planet will ever know. That's grace. And one day perfect grace and perfect truth will reunite and God's kingdom will be consummated. That may not be our history, but that's our future. That's grace and truth.
Let me close with a vision of this grace and truth that was given to St. John when he was on the Island of Patmos. Listen to his report...
Grace -- the Lamb of God was willing to
Grace and truth. Hey, how about that grace and truth up there at Whitworth College? May grace and truth be yours. You're the best. God bless you. Have a great year.