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Opening Convocation Message for Academic Year 2010-11

Sept. 9, 2010

"Celebrating a Courageous Mission"
Philippians 2:1-5

Good morning, Whitworth. This time of year is the most special to me. Each September, I grow downright giddy with excitement in anticipation of the upcoming academic year. This is my 35th fall semester to start a school year as either a student or a faculty member. On Saturday morning of this week, my eyes opened at about 3:30 a.m., and my mind began to race as I thought of all of the families who would be bringing students to Whitworth to make our campus their new home. I couldn't wait to see all of the new faces, and to experience the exhilaration associated with matriculating a new class of Whitworth freshmen. By the way, is the Class of 2014 in the house? Of course, as I lay there awake early Saturday morning, I was also concerned with pulling off a theatrically sound portrayal of Iron Man in the welcome skit that evening. I think it was intentional that I wasn't introduced to Dayna Coleman until after I signed my contract.

Opening convocations, in all their splendor and pageantry of colors, sights and sounds, are wonderful celebrations of community and purpose. As we begin Whitworth University's 121st academic year, it is appropriate and important that we come together as one community, united in common purpose, pursuing a shared and courageous mission. Thank you for participating in today's opening celebration. A new president is given a few coins of change that she or he can spend coming in the door. I was happy to spend one of my precious coins in calling for Whitworth to move opening convocation from its customary and cozy location in Cowles Auditorium to the fieldhouse so that we would have space to include everyone in our community in this important time together. By ensuring that this celebration can accommodate all faculty, staff, and students, we give a significant nod to inclusiveness, community, and academic ritual. These are important themes for any institution of higher education to honor.

Of course, this is also my first opening convocation as Whitworth's 18th president. For the first time this morning, I have donned the presidential regalia and the ceremonial chain of office (or as it's known in my house, "the presidential bling"). In addition to making me look like a walking billboard for the university, this outfit reminds me of the important and sacred responsibilities I now hold, and of the long line of faithful leaders I now join. You see, the president's ceremonial chain of office is adorned with the names and dates of service of each of the university's 17 previous presidents. It is a reminder to me that I am humbly called at this time in Whitworth's history to serve as your president, and that my work with all of you will build upon the faithful and tireless efforts of so many who have come before me – and not just previous presidents, but Whitworth's long line of faculty, staff, and students – now alumni – who have given their lives to service to this wonderful place. It is also an important reminder to me, and indeed to us all, that we are entrusted to carry out Whitworth's mission here on campus for only a brief moment in the institution's life. By God's grace, Whitworth has endured through times of both prosperity and need since its founding in 1890. By God's grace, Whitworth will be faithfully living out its noble mission for many generations after you and I depart this place. My name, and yours, will be added to the long line of Whitworthians who have contributed to the life of this institution. Let's not ever forget that we are a part of something that is much bigger than any one of us – any president, any incoming class (even the Class of 2014), or any group of faculty and staff. We serve an enduring institution.

There is one name on this chain of office that I should specifically mention at the outset of my presidential tenure: President Emeritus Bill Robinson. As a newcomer to this campus and as someone who is still trying to get my head around the distinctive qualities and ethos of the institution, it is so evident to me that Bill's fingerprints are all over this campus. Thank God. In Bill's 17 years of service, he led our university through times of unprecedented growth and prosperity. There are numerous accolades we could lay at Bill's feet, but I believe his most lasting mark on this institution is our sense of self. If a university has a "self," we know it. The clarity with which Whitworthians articulate our mission of mind and heart is truly amazing. That is Bill's legacy. Although we must always be diligent to ask the hard questions about who we are, and who we serve, my sense is that, as an institution, we have the luxury of being in the position to embrace our well-articulated and broadly shared sense of mission, and to focus our energy and time instead on activities and conversations that ask how we can leverage and extend our mission into an exciting and bold vision for this university. So let me use this time today, at the outset of my time of leadership, to acknowledge that I am standing on tall shoulders (or as some might say, trying to fill some big sneakers). I am grateful to Bill and Bonnie not only for their years of service and sacrifice for Whitworth, but also for their friendship and warm embrace of Julie, Zach, Lauren, Chloe, and me.

Finally, before moving on with our topic for today's program, I want to say a very personal and special thank you to the Whitworth community. The warm and loving embrace that my family and I have received over these past months of transition has been overwhelming. Words simply cannot describe the gratitude that Julie, the kids, and I feel for your grace-filled welcome into this community. Julie is here this morning, and she joins me in saying "thank you." We pray that our service and love for this institution will come close to matching that which you have shown us. Thank you for that important and sustaining gift.

Back in April, after the board made its decision to appoint me president, literally as I was walking out of the board meeting, the topic of my inauguration came up. It was my intuition then, and my firm resolve today, to elevate our inaugural festivities in mid-October, not as an opportunity to celebrate an individual (that would be a coronation, not an inauguration), but as an opportunity to celebrate Whitworth. In my opinion, there is perhaps no better moment for an institution like ours to celebrate its rich heritage, its place in today's larger conversations, and its bright future. Our time in October should be all about Whitworth.

Thanks to the leadership of the Inauguration Committee, we have a compelling theme for the inaugural week, and even, I propose, a theme for the entire year: Celebrating a Community of Courage. I couldn't be more pleased with the committee's choice. Even for me, as a relative newcomer, this theme of courage resonates so deeply with my initial impressions of our community – impressions that have only been solidified as I have come to know our institution better. So as we go about the important programming for academics and student life this year, I humbly ask that all of us make a commitment to explore this theme of courage in all that we do and plan this year. Let's press ourselves not only to celebrate our courageous community, but also to be courageous.

In my remarks today, and on October 15 during the inaugural ceremony, I will address this theme of courageousness from two different angles. Today, my plan is to concentrate on Whitworth's courageous mission – our collective understandings of educating the mind and heart, encouraging curiosity and conviction, and walking the narrow ridge between institutions on one side who see no place for faith in the pursuit of truth, and those on the other side who stifle questions and conversations in a fearful effort to protect truth. How do these three important expressions of the distinctive paradox at the heart of Whitworth's mission play out in our everyday life as a Christian institution of higher learning? On October 15, I will frame what I hope will be important ideas around Whitworth's courageous vision; that is, what we aspire to be as a leader among institutions of higher learning that proclaim the name of Jesus Christ and that embrace, in all aspects, what it means to be a university. I will begin to lay out how we will chart that course into the next decades of the 21st century.

Today's scripture passage that Josh read from the second chapter of Philippians resonates with me, as perhaps it does with many of you, for several reasons. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul (writing in chains from Rome) exhorts his readers to take on the attitude, or (in some translations) the mind, of Christ Jesus. That attitude, that mind, is characterized by Paul to be considerate of others, lacking "selfish ambition or vain conceit." The mind of Christ is described as taking on the ultimate expression of humility – in Jesus' case, leaving the majesty of his divine nature to take on human nature, and not only that but the humble nature of a servant. For only in that form could Jesus, God incarnate, win victory over sin, and through His life, death, and resurrection, restore our relationship with God.

For me, personally, this message resonates because, well, let's face it, being a university president can be a pretty heady thing. It's a great job. Any university president who says otherwise is lying, or isn't doing it right. You'll never hear me complain. Sure, there are the long days, difficult decisions, moments of tragedy that send shock waves through our community, but most days are filled with opportunities to be a champion for our students, faculty and staff, academic programs, alumni, and the civic community. I get to wear the crimson and black every day, although I only bring out the "bling" on special occasions. But at the end of the day, like all of you, I am called to lower myself and exalt others, to be a servant, even as I lead. If my days aren't filled with opportunities to elevate others before myself, opportunities to use the influence of my office to empower the work of others, then I'm failing. I'm failing you, our community, and I'm failing God. In your own areas of leadership and influence, many of you are thinking, even now, of ways that you are called to take on the humility of Christ in the process of serving others. Thank you for that commitment.

But being a university is also a pretty heady thing. Perhaps there is no more potentially elitist institution in our society than the academy. Degrees, academic pedigrees, tenure, publication records, teaching awards, the number of velvet stripes on the sleeve – these are the things that often define inclusion in academic communities, or more accurately, that mark the exclusion of others. The academy is often said to be among the most liberal of institutions in America. That may or may not be true as it relates to political ideologies, I suppose, but as it relates to the willingness to adapt and change, in my opinion, the academy is among the most conservative institutions – outside of the church, of course – in our society.

But Whitworth knows this, and although the institution would certainly never claim perfection on this point, we seem to understand the concept of making the academic life more accessible, less elusive, and more inclusive. Professors and staff members here don't allow titles, or the lack thereof, to keep them from interacting together for the good of our students. Students at Whitworth have extraordinary access to their instructors, often spending hours in faculty members' offices or around coffee tables, or in the labs, discussing their lives and our society's biggest challenges. This relative informality and access opens opportunities for relationship and learning. Forrest Baird's willingness to play the mad scientist in the orientation skit on Saturday didn't just reflect his hunger to pursue an acting career frustrated by his quest to prove that Plato was indeed smarter than Aristotle. It also reflects his desire to minimize the perceived barriers and distance between himself and the students he has dedicated his life to serving. This campus knows that the best learning occurs in the context of relationship. I love that. Paul exhorts his readers in Philippi to take on the humility of Christ, just as Christ modeled humility to the world. We can surely come down from our lofty ivory towers protected by status, reputation, and power to interact with our students and community, when Christ came down eagerly from His heavenly throne to be with us.

But even more important, and crucial to our examination of Whitworth's courageous mission, the concept of humility has weaved its way into our fabric of learning and life on this campus. You see, one of the values that allow our campus to walk the ridge between curiosity and conviction, to balance truth and grace, and to be faithful to an education of mind and heart, is our willingness to say the following words: "We don't know," or "We have more to learn". When religious and political fundamentalism boasts of easy certainty, when civil discourse is modeled nightly in one-minute diatribes that yield lots of flames but no light, and when too many Americans, frustrated by the noise and complexity around society's most pressing issues, choose just to disengage, Whitworth stands boldly and courageously in the gap. Unlike some Christian schools that populate one side of the ridge that Whitworth navigates, we acknowledge that many of our society's most fundamental questions don't have easy and certain answers. Rather than seeking easy answers, we invite tougher questions, and then provide venues for healthy, respectful, and vigorous debate. Only in bright light, which requires a commitment to understanding the facts and their context, and in robust discourse, can truth be revealed. Humility as we search for answers, we pray, will always be a cornerstone of our community at Whitworth. That's the mind in the paradox that is "mind and heart." That's the grace in "grace and truth." That's the curiosity in "curiosity and conviction." May we always seek the attitude of Christ as we pursue the life of the mind, as we nurture curiosity, and as we live grace-filled lives that love across our differences.

But what about the heart, the truth, the conviction? When relativism dismisses the very notion of moral conviction, Whitworth insists on a place for transcendent truth. That is also a courageous place to be in higher education, and, unfortunately, it's a place where there is less company to keep these days. Whitworth's commitment to the centrality of Christ is what keeps us sure-footed on the ridge, and not among the scores of colleges and universities lining up along one side of the slippery slope – institutions that have jettisoned their Christian missions in favor of, as they would see it, academic reputation, political expedience, or an easier "sell" in an increasingly pluralistic society.

In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he calls the church to find encouragement from being united in Christ. Having been comforted by Christ's love, and having found unity and fellowship with the Holy Spirit, Paul encourages the church to become like-minded, pursuing a common purpose of expressing Christ's love and grace to a world in deep need. For all of its 120-year history, Whitworth's mission has been to prepare its students to "honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity." That is our purpose; that is our mission. It is to that noble calling that we rally together here at Whitworth. A university formed in the Presbyterian and Reformed theological traditions, but also purposefully evangelical and ecumenical in its identity, Whitworth finds the integration of Christian faith and learning to be a compelling and unifying feature of our community. We find immense value when we examine our disciplines and areas of study through the lens of our theological and biblical worldview. It is exactly this kind of examination that inspires Kerry Breno, of our chemistry faculty, to work with her students to develop innovative techniques for industries engaged in chemical processes to minimize the harm they cause to God's creation. Work like Kerry's helps us dismiss the notion that our commitments to the centrality of Christ and the authority of scripture weaken our place among centers of thinking and dialogue. We courageously subscribe to the Reformed theological view that all truth is God's truth, and that we should honor that truth, whether it is revealed to us through an act of human discovery, or through divine revelation. We boldly search for truth wherever that journey may take us, even to the limits of our understanding of God, because we are confident that God will meet us there. We courageously embrace Christ as we embrace his world.

Make no mistake, students: You have not chosen the easiest path. The journey through Whitworth takes you along a precarious ridge with matchless views but with clear challenges. It takes courage to navigate this intellectually and spiritually challenging terrain, but know that our faculty and staff are at your side. It takes courage to expose your most deeply held convictions to scrutiny by others, much less yourself, but know that critical thinking and engaging the broadest spectrum of ideas can be sharpening stones rather than stumbling blocks to faith. It takes courage to pursue a vocation to change the world and not just your own place in it, but know that you follow in the footsteps of generations of Whitworth alumni whose minds and hearts have been forged for great things – the greatness of mustard seeds, and even pine cones.

Students, faculty and staff of Whitworth University, may God bless you, and may God in Christ give you great courage to find and follow the path that has been laid before each of you. Amen.