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Opening Convocation Message for Academic Year 2011-12

Sept. 8, 2011

"The Three Cs"
2 Corinthians 3:3-6
1 Corinthians 16:13-14
1 John 3:16-18

Good morning, Whitworth! Thank you for being here. Opening Convocation is a very important symbolic statement about our community at Whitworth, and it's wonderful to see so many who have chosen to celebrate the beginning of Whitworth's 122nd academic year with us.

The sights and sounds of today's event remind us of some very important things. First, our students are here. We are reminded, by their participation here today, of Whitworth's core mission – the mind-and-heart education of students. That is why we exist. Students lie at the very center of our community – whether they are traditional undergraduates, or continuing studies students, or graduate students – and part of our purpose today is to rededicate ourselves to the noble purpose of educating these students. I want to add a special welcome to our newest students. If you are a new transfer student, a new continuing studies student, or a new graduate student at Whitworth, would you please rise and let us welcome you? Next, I would like the Whitworth Class of 2015 to rise and let us greet you. We are so pleased that all of you are now a part of the Whitworth family.

Our faculty members are also here today, dressed in their academic splendor. Our faculty serves as an important reminder to all of us about dedication, loyalty, and the importance of the life of the mind. We rely upon our faculty to guide our academic programs and to lead and mentor students as they learn, grow, and mature. Our faculty members also remind us of the deep and important connections Whitworth has to the broader academic community – the colors of the various academic robes and hoods worn today represent the colleges and universities that have faithfully lived out their respective missions to produce scholars and teachers of the highest caliber – and now Whitworth is the beneficiary of that good work. Faculty members, please rise and let us thank you for all you do and for all that you represent.

Next, Whitworth's fantastic staff members are here today. They represent so well Whitworth's deep and sustaining commitments to service and to excellence. Behind every great faculty and every great student body are women and men who serve in areas like the registrar's office, campus security, information technology, the print shop, financial aid, administrative support, student activities, and many other vital areas. I often say that Whitworth will never be any better than the excellence that its staff members bring each and every day – and fortunately, our staff members are great, and that makes Whitworth great. Staff members, please stand and let us welcome and thank you.

Whitworth's external constituencies are also represented here this morning. Friends, donors, alumni, auxiliary members, pastors, community members, parents, public servants: These are all people who give life to the university through their steadfast prayers, significant leadership, volunteer service, and generous financial giving. All of those I have just mentioned, who support Whitworth in such amazing ways, please rise and let us thank you for all that you do.

Finally, our university trustees provide wise leadership and provide the ultimate safeguard for Whitworth's distinctive mission through exercising sound governance, through thorough planning and oversight, and through generously offering their time, wisdom, and financial resources. This morning, Debbie Cozzetto, a member of our board, is here representing all of her trustee colleagues. Debbie, please stand and allow us to thank you and our entire board of trustees. Thank you.

We all form the Whitworth community – each and every one of us is part of this university's DNA. We have different roles and responsibilities, we intersect with the university in different ways, but each of us contributes significantly to this place and helps to make Whitworth what it is. As I often remind our students, you all make Whitworth a better place because you are here. Although I've been a member of this community for only a little more than one year, it is already one that I deeply love and feel compelled to serve with all of my energies. On behalf of Julie and our entire family, I want to thank you for the past year – thanks for creating the grace-filled space for us to be new, to ask a lot of questions, and to make some mistakes. We are so grateful and blessed to call you our friends and colleagues.

It was this same community that had a very important conversation last year. Together, we tackled questions like, "Who – and what – is Whitworth?"; "In what ways are we living out our mission well, and in what areas do we see need for improvement?"; and, ultimately, "How do we imagine the university in 10 years if we are able to come together, again as a community, and dedicate ourselves to focusing on key elements of the university's life and identity that we find compelling and exciting, and which we determine to be central to Whitworth's core values and commitments?" That conversation invited more than 25,000 Whitworthians, located all over the globe, to weigh in on these defining questions. Many of you in this room were directly involved in providing input to what ultimately emerged as the university's 10-year vision statement and supporting strategic plan, Whitworth 2021: Courage at the Crossroads.

The 2021 vision connects past with future. It draws heavily from the university's historic and sustaining commitments to mind-and-heart education, to relational community, to being intellectually open and engaging, but also to being unapologetically enthusiastic about the university's commitments to Christ and to his life, ministry and teaching. It looks boldly to the future by identifying the kinds of educational outcomes that will be necessary for our students and community to draw upon as we engage an ever-changing world. Thinking harder about finding connections between faith and learning, strengthening the vitality of intellectual life in all domains of university life, preparing our students for global citizenship and for lives of service and leadership in a world much more diverse than the one we find here, finding new and refreshed traction for the liberal arts as they shape the educational priorities of all of our academic programs, enhancing Whitworth's programs for adult learners and graduate students, supporting and equipping our employees in new and exciting ways, and exercising diligent stewardship in growing Whitworth's financial and capital resources: These are the major priorities that will consolidate and organize our efforts, God willing, over the next decade.

One of the most exciting things about our envisioning efforts last year was the effort to give some more definition to what it means to prepare Whitworth's graduates "to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity." Specifically, embedded within the university's new vision statement is the commitment to equip graduates "to respond to God's unique call on their lives with intellectual competence, moral courage, and deep compassion." Competence...courage... compassion: the "Three Cs." These are attributes of our students and graduates that we choose to affirm and to elevate. What would it mean if Whitworth's students and graduates, indeed, if all of us who are a part of the Whitworth community, faithfully lived out our God-given vocations in ways that were intellectually competent (striving for and displaying excellence in all things), morally courageous (standing up for what is right and just), and deeply compassionate (seeing the needs of others before our own)? I began to answer this question myself several weeks ago as I started thinking about my remarks this morning. Then it hit me – it's important to elevate these attributes as we think about the university's future, and they give clearer context for what it means to "serve humanity." But these aren't brand-new concepts for the Whitworth community. Indeed, those of us who are blessed to serve and live on this campus see competence, courage and compassion all around us. So I've asked three of our community members to come this morning and to share their thoughts on the "Three Cs": competence, courage and compassion. In my opinion, these three speakers embody these characteristics.

I will introduce each of our guest speakers this morning, then ask each one to come to the podium and share his or her thoughts with us. When all three are finished, I will conclude.

Kari Olson graduated from Whitworth this past May. A winner of the President's Cup (given to seniors who graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA), Kari majored in theology and speech communication, minored in biblical languages, and was active in a number of groups on campus. Many of us who know Kari quickly associate her with excellence, with consummate competence. This became even clearer to me two weeks ago when I heard Kari preach a masterful and God-honoring sermon at Whitworth Community Presbyterian Church, where she currently serves as intern pastor.

Darrien Mack is a member of the Whitworth Class of 2013. An Act Six scholar, Darrien was a Leonard Oakland Film Festival Award winner last year. He is a graphic design major known for his genuineness, inner strength and winning personality. I asked him to speak about courage because this value is at the heart of his presence at Whitworth. His understanding of courage is indicative of what it means to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.

Finally, Melissa Johnson is a member of the Whitworth Class of 2012. A peace studies major minoring in community engagement and transformation, Melissa took an entire year's hiatus from the university last year to live and work in Rwanda. Her community-development work had a profound impact on her life and on the lives of those who came into contact with her. As a Bonner Leader, Melissa has worked with communities in need, serving as the hands and feet of the mind and heart. Melissa's compassion is unparalleled and is an example to each of us.

Kari Olson, Class of 2011

2 Corinthians 3:3-6:
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

As Christians, we are called to pursue competence as an act of stewardship, honoring God with our work.

I've always been told I was smart. In high school, I became so fearful that my competence would become a source of pride and competition that I tried to convince myself that I wasn't that smart. But that attitude is not helpful either. Instead, I learned to recognize my intelligence as a gift from God and something of which He called me to be a good steward. The fact that you are here at Whitworth University means that you have been blessed with competence and intelligence – and you've worked at it. Don't waste the gift of competence. Do recognize that, as Paul says, "our competence comes from God."

If pursuing intellectual competence and excellence is about stewardship, then – and bear with me on this one – doing your homework is an act of worship. Do it with excellence because you want to honor God by cultivating the abilities He has given you.

Stewardship is not the only reason to pursue intellectual competence. Imagine this: You go in for brain surgery and the surgeon tells you, "I kind of scraped my way through med school and I'm not too familiar with this surgery, but I mean well and I have little crosses on my tools and a fish tattoo on my wrist, so I'm sure God will use me." Compare that to a surgeon who tells you, "God has given me a passion for medicine and caring for the human body and a good mind to learn. So I've studied well, sought the best training, and worked hard to master my technique so that I can serve God well by caring for you well."

I did think it was a bit ironic that Beck asked me to speak about competence after hearing me preach a sermon about Moses, who was not competent, but was asked to trust that God would use him anyway. But we at Whitworth embrace a lot of tensions in which we live – mind & heart, conviction & curiosity, grace & truth. Here's another one: God can and does use incompetent people to accomplish His purposes. But don't you dare use that as an excuse to be lazy or not to do your best to prepare. Our competence is a gift from God, and He calls us to be good stewards of that gift – to work at it, to nourish it, and to develop it.

Whitworth's mission is to send its students out into the world as letters from Christ, the result of Whitworth's ministry. I now work next door at Whitworth Presbyterian Church, and I have been well-prepared by the ministry of Whitworth University – the classes I took, books I read, students with whom I studied and built friendships, professors who taught me and got to know me. Whitworth's mission is to prepare you as competent ministers of God's work in the world – in medicine, law, business, the church, and your neighborhood.

While you are here, you have the opportunity to devote yourselves to studying. Take advantage of your courses and the time you have to focus on them. Pursue excellence. Prepare well for your vocation. Develop the gift of competence that comes from God through the Spirit, who gives life.

Darrien Mack, Class of 2013

1 Corinthians 16: 13-14.
Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.
Within this scripture, the topic of courage does not stand alone. It is connected with being on guard, with standing firm in faith and being strong. These actions are essential to moral courage, a value of deep importance to me and to the Whitworth community.

The topic of moral courage resonates with me because it speaks to a person's true character. Moral courage is about practicing what you preach, being true to yourself, and speaking the truth regardless of the outcome; having the courage and character to do what is right when it's not popular, even when no one else is watching.

There are so many ways in which Whitworth lives out this value. Last year my mother passed away. I was so accustomed to being independent and private that I didn't initially share this with anyone other than my roommate. I have a friend who noticed something was unusual with me, and I finally shared it with her. As the word spread, the Whitworth community found ways to show me exactly what Christian love looks like. How does this connect to moral courage? It wasn't easy to help me. It took your knowing what was right, what should be done, to push past my insecurities and to follow through with your faith. I found my insecurities melting away as students, faculty and staff respectfully supported and encouraged me. You showed me the courage that comes from having someone believe in you despite your misgivings. As a result, I now understand what it means to move past my doubts and courageously look to the needs of others, regardless of the obstacles.

A freshman named Seth lost his wallet last week, and I found it in the street. I didn't know Seth, but I found him, and returned it to him uncompromised. That is something minor that represents something greater. I'm not the only person who practices moral courage. I've had students return my I.D. to me, as well as my flash drive, and other important belongings.

Moral courage is not about who we claim to be, but about who we reveal ourselves to be through our words and actions. Consider the oak tree. It is nothing more than a little nut refusing to give ground. The question for you is, will you give ground, or will you stand fast on your principles?

So I encourage you today to live your time here at Whitworth courageously. Fight for what's right and don't settle for what is comfortable. Take every opportunity to be courageous, to stand up for your beliefs, to be true to yourself and your difference, to learn something new and know you can do it, to continue what is right and good and true, to be on your guard, to stand firm in the faith; to be courageous; to be strong, and to do everything in love .
Thank you.

Melissa Johnson, Class of 2012

1 John 3:16-18
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

I found it quite fitting that this was the passage President Taylor chose for me. Not only is it one of my favorite passages from the New Testament, but I also believe that it is deeply convicting and relevant to life my life – and to our lives as Whitworth students, staff, faculty, and alumni.

The word "pity" in this passage is often replaced with the word "compassion" in other translations, but I believe that the Greek for this word – "splagchnon" – provides a more profound understanding of the verse. "Splagchnon" literally translates to "bowels," "guts," or "intestines" – not the most appealing of words – but the ancients often regarded this region of the body as the seat of affections and emotions, such as anger and love. The phrase "I feel it in the pit of my stomach" can be seen as a modern parallel. "Splagchnon" refers to that deep, internal caring or emotion. It's at the root of "gut-wrenching" feelings or "broken-heartedness." In this regard, "splagchnon" – "compassion" – takes on a physical form.

I spent the last year of my life studying and living in Rwanda, a small, green, and breathtakingly beautiful country located in East Africa. Most commonly, Rwanda is known for ethnic tension, which boiled over into full-fledged genocide in 1994, as seen in popular movies like Hotel Rwanda. In addition to spending time learning about the genocide, I also took a course on the social context for development, which examined development work on a community level. My research project for this class beckoned me to the Eastern province of Rwanda, where I camped on the border of Tanzania and talked with vulnerable families in the community of Nyagatare for a week. The Rwandan government had given my peers and me a list of vulnerable families whom we would identify, interview, and report back on. But on day two of our Indiana Jones-style adventure, we axed our list – we had been passing up families who were living in grass shacks to talk to other families living in grass shacks who had been lucky enough just to make it onto our list. Everyone in Nyagatare was vulnerable. Everyone was impoverished, and nobody should have been passed up. In fact, it's safe for me to take it a step further and say that poverty was an understatement for the condition of the people in Nyagatare: These families were living in destitution. Food was impossible to find, adequate medical care was a 16-mile walk into town, and water was located in Tanzania, a whole country away. Death was their future. And for some, it was coming quickly.

It's one thing to see video footage of famine on the news, or to see photos of starving African children in National Geographic, but this reality takes on a whole new dimension when that starving child with bloated belly and bony ribs is sitting in your lap, sucking on your finger. I sat there in the sweltering afternoon sun, and my gut – my gut was in knots. My heart was in pieces. Splagchnon.

I think it would be valuable for us to also examine the English definition of the word "compassion." Merriam-Webster defines compassion as the "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress, together with a desire to alleviate it." While I think that this definition explains the idea of compassion, it leaves out one essential component: action. As Christians, many, if not all, of us would hope to identify with the characteristic of compassion. And I would expect nothing less from the community here at Whitworth. Being compassionate is a good thing, and we hold it in high regard. But one thing that is particularly challenging about compassion is its overall goal of moving us into action. Compassion without action is just an idle feeling. It sits there in our gut, gnaws away at our insides, but eventually fades away and dies. Compassion becomes useless.

For me, engagement and action in the community of Nyagatare took the form of me returning to Rwanda for a second semester to help coordinate a family sponsorship program that serves the families I had the supreme blessing of spending time with in my first semester. Nyagatare has become my home, and the people in Nyagatare have become my family. I know that I have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers there, and that they have a daughter and sister in me. Their victories as a community have become my victories. Their joys – my joys. Their hurt and suffering and starvation – my hurt and suffering and starvation. Engagement and action have never been easy, and simplicity was never promised to us when we decided to live in love. By sharing in community with people who are hurting, we are forced not only to take on their suffering, but we also become aware of our own – our own brokenness, our own poverty, and our own starvation.

So what would it mean for us here at Whitworth if our students, alumni, staff and faculty were known as being compassionate people? What would that look like? Perhaps it would mean that we'd pull over, break bread, and share conversation with someone living at an intersection along Division Street on a regular basis. Perhaps it would mean starting a support group for your hall mate who just found out that his or her family member was diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps it means taking a semester or a year to go and share in life abroad with a community in need. Whatever this means for you, Whitworth, I challenge you to let this be the year in which you begin to live out your compassion in a way that spreads the love of Christ in active and engaging ways.

Beck Taylor

Let's thank Kari, Darrien and Melissa one more time for their challenging and encouraging words.

Competence, courage and compassion – these are attributes to which all Whitworth graduates, indeed all of us, should be committed. Members of this community, let us dedicate ourselves, here and now, to being intellectually competent, morally courageous, and deeply compassionate members of the Whitworth community; to being competent, courageous and compassionate friends, family members, and neighbors; to being competent, courageous and compassionate servants within our community and across the globe; to being competent, courageous and compassionate citizens; to being competent, courageous and compassionate Whitworthians. May it be so through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.