Whitworth University Spring 2010 Convocation Address
It has become a Whitworth tradition to begin every spring semester by celebrating Heritage Week. In opening convocation, Dr. Soden gives a history lesson highlighting some part of our past. Then I try to make my address follow that theme. For example, four years ago, when you seniors were freshmen, we looked at the history of science at Whitworth.
This year Dale told me the theme would be history. History. I can imagine a few things about the history of science, but what can I say about the history of history? It sounds redundant.
In fact, why do we study history? What's the point? It's over. Let it go. That's the thing about studying history. You're always too late. What can we do now about the War of 1812? So why do we study history?
We study history to remember, to learn, and to act. Celebrating history is great, but history's big contribution is in what we can learn about the present and the future. We need to remember in order to learn and to act. History reminds us of our past, enlightens our present, and guides our future. We see this even in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts" – history; "...as we forgive our debtors" – present. "And lead us not into temptation" – future.
We need to remember, but we need to remember accurately. It is history that holds our remembering accountable. Too often we remember selectively, or sentimentally, or even creatively. For example, as I look back on my accomplishments in athletics, I seem to be improving. The older I get, the better I was. This is how boys remember. Bonnie claims men are not romantic. That is so not true. We are very romantic. It's just that we're romantic about ourselves. Listen to what the late Dan Seals sings about his old car.
No, he doesn't. Give him that pile of junk back, and he'd be singing about how he wished he were driving that new Mercedes. Our memories are subject to sentimentality, and that's probably okay. But our memories are also subject to repression, and that can be very dangerous. We need history to stand guard against convenient and manipulative denials of our past. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel begged the world not to forget the horrors suffered by his people. He laments, Of course we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds. But good, stubborn history should not and will not let our memories erase the past.
In this morning's scripture, history plays a dramatic role in helping the people of Judah remember, learn and act. Shortly before the fall of Israel's southern kingdom, an eight-year-old boy named Josiah inherited his father's throne. He actually became king at age 16, and he launched a series of reforms at age 20. Despite the wickedness of his father and grandfather, we read that Josiah set out "to seek the God of his father, David."
One of Josiah's reforms was to restore the temple, which had been neglected for several hundred years. It was in that process that a momentous discovery took place. Priest Hilkiah found the lost Book of the Law. Somehow, this book – which was probably the whole Torah, but certainly included Deuteronomy – had been separated from its keeping place next to the Ark of the Covenant.
So, Josiah had his royal scribe read him the contents of this lost book. And Josiah was horrified by what he heard. He could not believe the extent to which the people of Judah had abandoned the laws of God. Somehow they had forgotten their own history. Their memories had been erased so thoroughly that even the king was surprised by what he heard.
So King Josiah did exactly what we should do with history. He gathered the people and read them their story so they could remember, so they could learn, so they could act.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend who's a Ph.D. student at Emory University. He made the observation that in the Bible, history is often recited in times of transition. Remembering where we have been helps us understand where we should and shouldn't go in times of change.
I suppose it can be said that Whitworth is entering a time of transition, as we seek a new president. So it's good to read our history, to remember who we are and how we reached this point. In that spirit, Dale and others asked me to deliver a few reflections on my history as Whitworth's 17th president. Well, I tried, but I couldn't think of any.
When I sat down to write this speech, I thought about history, since history is our theme. And I thought about Josiah, since his story makes my points about the purpose of history. But when it came to my own reflections, I got stuck. I have thousands of memories about my 17 years at Whitworth, but they all felt so puny. Josiah read the Book of the Law. Bill told about the ice storm.
So, I had been sitting in our family room for 90 minutes with no reflections to show for it. Then I heard Bonnie come in from a walk. I called out, "Bonnie, I cannot think of a single thing that qualifies as a worthwhile reflection." She said, "How about reflecting on the mission?" I replied, "People are sick of me talking about the mission." So she walked out of the room, and I went from sitting on the couch to assuming the fetal position on the couch. And the next sound I heard was Bonnie at the piano playing this: (Bonnie plays Amazing Grace.)
Amazing grace. This is my best reflection on 17 years at Whitworth. No single event, no single decision, no single idea compares with the incessant flow of God's grace. Were it not for this grace, I wouldn't even be here. On a Tuesday night in 1993, I made up my mind not to take this position. The next day, before I had contacted Whitworth's search committee, God graciously opened my eyes through a friend who convinced me to take one more look. I believe God's grace brought me here, and I believe God's grace will bring us our next president.
Fortunately, God's grace did not end when I arrived at Whitworth. In the early and mid-'90s, we faced challenges that were far too much for me. But God's amazing grace took us through the danger, toils and snares and allowed us to prosper.
Beyond any doubt, I have seen God's grace in Whitworth's prosperity. But I have also found grace in Whitworth's people. I have felt amazing grace from the Whitworth faculty. In agreement and in disagreement, they have shown warmth and acceptance and care to Bonnie and me. I have felt amazing grace from the Whitworth staff. Whether I have been absent or meddling, they have blessed me with friendship and trust. I have felt amazing grace from my colleagues on the president's cabinet. When I've been all hyper and whiney, they have dreamed up euphemisms to describe me. One time when Dale Soden and I were guarding each other in a basketball game, he told me I was complex. What the heck does complex mean? It means that Dale is either a true intellectual or a true suck-up. The cabinet has been so grace-filled. They are my dear friends. And no college president has felt more grace from students than I have. I don't even know what to say about this. You students have been so kind to me. If I have a reputation in higher education, it is for my relationship with you. Alumni, trustees and community members have all been agents of God's amazing grace in my life. So, my best reflections are on my relationships with you, and they are all saturated with grace.
Actually, I do have one other reflection. I'm going to take Bonnie's advice, as usual, and reflect briefly on our mission, on why I chose the "narrow ridge" as a metaphor for that mission.
From the time I arrived, I have always been careful to give credit to the Jewish theologian Martin Buber for the narrow-ridge language. He used it to describe his general perspective in a 1947 publication titled Between Man and Man, trans. by Ronald Gregor Smith [London: Kegan Paul, 1947], p.184). I chose the metaphor for two reasons. First, Buber used that metaphor to protest the relentlessness with which ideas were being reduced to either/or choices. I agree with Buber on that protest. I think many either/or dichotomies come from a reductive, rhetorical, bumper-sticker mentality. "America: Love it or leave it." Well, there might be a few other options. Whitworth has a history of exploring contrary ideas, of being reluctant to create win/lose situations between contrasting philosophies. We would rather stand on the ridge and look at both sides of an issue than force the choice of one extreme or the other.
My second reason for choosing the metaphor is because Whitworth will always need to keep its footing as we navigate the glorious paradox of a God both veiled and unveiled. We see God unveiled in the inspired, holy and authoritative written Word of God. Yet a veil remains. Neither word nor symbol can ever measure the full majesty of God. We see God unveiled in Jesus Christ – not merely a representation of God, but God; fully God, God Incarnate. Yet a veil remains in the limits of humanity. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit remain behind the glass through which we see darkly.
So we walk the narrow ridge, emboldened by all we have seen in God unveiled through Christ and scripture. But we walk humbly, deeply aware of what we have not seen, of what God has chosen to leave behind the veil. We walk the ridge, careful not to join the company of those who pursue truth as if God were utterly veiled, and also careful not to join the company of those who proclaim truth as if God were utterly unveiled. The truth of Christ is and ever shall be, both in mystery and in revelation.
This morning's historical slide presentation has helped us remember and learn from the paths that brought us to this point. Now we are left to act. And that brings me to one more observation about Josiah. When he learned from this newly discovered book of the law that God was going to punish Judah for its decadence, he didn't just rend his robes in remorse, although he definitely did that. He sent his servant to a prophetess named Huldah to find out if it was too late to repent. He said to his servant, "Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book...."
Josiah wanted to know if a revival in Judah would change God's mind. Would God have mercy and not scatter his people as he warned in Deuteronomy 28?
So here's God's response: "Good for you, Josiah. You have humbled yourself, rent your clothes and wept in my presence, but it's too late. I will bring devastation to your people." And God did. Some 25 years later, Judah fell into Babylonian captivity.
At this point it's tempting to remind you that Christ fulfilled the law. He took our punishment. So now, because of his grace, it is never too late. But it was too late for Josiah and his people. So what did he do when he found out that no matter what they did or didn't do, God's wrath was coming? Listen to II Kings 23:
This is amazing. It didn't matter that it was too late. Josiah chose faithfulness, regardless of the outcome. And so must we. Faithfulness is not some kind of currency we use to buy God's favor. Faithfulness is not the debt service we pay for God's blessing. Faithfulness is not a calculation based on projected consequences. Faithfulness is our sacred duty and privilege as children of God and followers of Christ. Oh, it is true that faithfulness promises a better life than unfaithfulness. Look at the despair unfaithfulness brought to Sen. John Edwards or Gov. Mark Sanford or Tiger Woods. But a better life is not the main reason we should be faithful. We should be faithful because we belong to God through Christ. Period.
My highest hope for Whitworth is for us to be faithful to God's calling. True, we have to be smart, and we have to be strategic. But above all we have to be faithful to God and to this mission we have been given, regardless of the outcomes. The history of Whitworth is a history of God's amazing grace and faithfulness. When we gather to remember, let that same grace and faithfulness be seared on our memories. Let the energy of remembering inspire faithfulness in us, as it did in King Josiah.
In this, our 120th year, we walk the ridge by faith. But we walk sure-footedly, with scripture as the lamp unto our feet, and with Christ our savior as the light of the world. This is the history of Whitworth University. May it ever be our future. Amen.