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Whitworth College Spring Convocation Address 2004

Feb. 10, 2004
Bill Robinson

When I began to think two weeks ago about this morning's Founder's Day address, I was hit with the grim awareness that 11 days of traveling would keep me away from my books until yesterday. So this morning I am simply going to share a part of our family history that has been on my mind every day for the past month. It is the best I could do with a laptop and 12,000 miles of airplane rides. You might think of this address as convocation-lite, or maybe the heart-half of mind and heart. So, PLEASE take care of the mind-half of mind and heart by coming to Stephen Davis's lecture in the chapel at 7:30 p.m. tonight. He's a great philosopher who once sat where you sit this morning.

Of the folks Dr. Soden mentioned this morning, I knew Lillian Whitehouse Lyle the best. She was a statuesque woman who left a long, rich shadow in every way. I've heard countless women tell of her influence. Some would say she made history. "Made history." That's an interesting phrase. It seems a bit redundant. Once you use the past tense of the infinitive "to make," or the past tense of any verb for that matter, you are pretty much into history. You don't have to be Laura Bloxham to find an odd ring to the phrase, "I love that restaurant, I went there tomorrow."

I actually remember being puzzled by the term "make history" as an 8-year old boy. It was a sweltering summer night in Chicago, probably following a day in which both the temperature and the humidity came within an eyelash of triple digits. We didn't have air conditioning, and it doesn't seem to me that any of our friends did either. I think we were members of the suburban, Baptist, sweat-friendly, 1958 Gnostic sect that found virtue in suffering. But on that scorching summer night, my dad drove us eight miles to the nearest public swimming pool for a family swim. Well, the second we got into the locker room, I jumped into my little bathing suit, took off running on the wet floor, did a 1/3 gainer bouncing my head off the concrete, was promptly deposited into our car with an ice pack on my head, and was assured that listening to the radio broadcast of the Chicago White Sox playing the Washington Senators would be more fun than swimming. Evidently, my whole family wanted to have less fun, because none of them joined me.

The announcer, Bob Elson, was one of those unusual sportscasters who found words superfluous. A 1,000 times in my childhood I screwed up the tuning dial on our radio thinking I'd lost the station while Bob silently watched the game. But not this night. Bob was excited. He was speaking between pitches. "Billy Pierce," he droned, "is making history tonight." This memory is absolutely vivid. Little left-handed Billy Pierce was within one out of a perfect game. He'd faced 26 guys in 8 and 2/3s innings and recorded 26 outs. But alas, Ed Fitzgerald, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, blooped a double down the right field line, before Billy went on to strike out Albi Pearson to end the game. "Well," groaned Bob, "Billy did not make history, but he pitched a fine game. Now let's hear from the good people at Hamm's Beer."

When you're eight, it's hard to figure out how to make history when bloop doubles deny your heroes from making it. Do you have to be perfect to make history? History is fickle. We hear phrases such as "history will decide if so and so was a good leader." Or worse, we hear a professor tell us, "you're history."

But I think making history is good, and you should all want to make some. You should be thinking right now about what kind of history you want to make. I think if we thought more about making history we would do better at figuring out the present. But you've got a problem, a big problem. You live in a culture that tells you every day in every way that life is all about... right now. Instant gratification. Last week I had an appointment in the West Wing of the Whitehouse. Being screened four times reminded me that our nation lives under the threat of terrorism. But we forget about an equally dangerous threat, one that lures us rather than screens us -- it is the moral and economic threat of crushing personal debt that Americans are paying to the god of "I want it now."

Ironically, the best way to "make history" is to "think future." To be sure, there are many ways to get our names into the history books -- both good and bad. But the kind of history I want you to consider is the kind you make when somehow your life leaves a broad and enduring mark. What will last after you leave? How will your influence live on? Do you think about that?

The passage Rev. Andrews read tells the story of a man who made history. We read that Nehemiah anguished over the blight that had descended on his people and his homeland. When he learned of the Israelites suffering, even the king could not console him.

So Nehemiah the cupbearer, who had the cush job of sampling the king's food and wine, went from fat city to Jerusalem. And there he led his people in the arduous task of rebuilding the city and its walls. Notably, he also used his leadership position to demand social reform. He converted the loan sharks whose extortion level interest rates stood in the way of most citizens owning property. Nehemiah made history. Jerusalem was rebuilt, and the marks of his labor are borne yet today by Jewish people around the world.

The life of Nehemiah reminds us that when we make history, large or small, our influence can ripple though time in ways we never could have imagined.

Today we learned of that rippling effect in the life and legacy of great Whitworth professors. I hope you were inspired. They represent thousands of faculty and staff who have left indelible marks. One of those folks is a strong and gentle man named Ron Frase. Dr. Frase served Whitworth as campus pastor and professor for 17 years. Shortly after I arrived at Whitworth, I learned of a great mark on Ron's life. When Ron was a boy his family moved to Hamburg, New York. It was an unchurched family, so they must have figured "why not?" when the pastor of a little Baptist parish invited them to church. Ultimately, that invitation and the compassion of that pastor led to the Frases becoming Christians and serving Christ around the world. For Ron, this meant earning a Ph.D and serving people, especially the poor, through Whitworth, Young Life, and various other missions.

All who remember Ron were not surprised that Dale Soden's mention of Ron in the Whitworth history was in reference to the Central America Tour. He was a driving force in its founding and leadership. Six days ago in Washington D.C., I listened to Jeff Shrider, class of '93, tell how that tour changed his life and led to him spending most of the years since graduation working on behalf of the poor in Nicaragua. I have heard versions of Jeff's story repeated hundreds of times by alumni of the Central America tour, always with appreciation for Ron Frase, Don Liebert, Jim Hunt and others.

Now, here's what I've been thinking about so much lately. Some 10 years ago while sitting in my office getting to know Ron, we came to the startling discovery that the preacher who knocked on the Frase door in Hamburg, New York was my grandfather, Frederick Robinson. Two years ago Frederick Robinson's great grandson, Ben Robinson, our son. became one of those people whose life was changed by the Central America tour that Ron Frase helped birth. When Grandpa Robinson knocked on the Frase family door, he never could have known that inviting the Frase family to church would someday change the life of his great grandson, whom he would never even meet.

Largely due to Ben's experience on the Central America tour, he left last month to spend the next several years doing youth work in Cairo, Egypt. Because his ministry is one that required him to solicit financial support and prayer support, he sent out letters telling of his forthcoming ministry. One of the letters went to the person whom our children remember as their favorite and most frequent babysitter, Elaine, who at the time was a student at Manchester College where I served as president. The Robinson children must have had a lot of runny noses back then because Elaine is now a pediatrician.

Ben was delighted when he heard back from Elaine. She told how much she enjoyed his spirited nature as a boy; that would be code for he was a wild man. She also told him about her own children and life as a mother, doctor and wife. She concluded her letter telling Ben about her mother's financial sacrifice in sending two children to college on a meager salary, a situation that resulted in Elaine discovering late in her senior year of college that she did not have enough money to graduate. She told how Bonnie and I had found out about her shortfall and gave her the amount she needed to graduate, asking that she help the next generation of Elaines when she became able. She told how she and her husband, a dentist, now frequently go to the Dominican Republic, providing free medical care for children. She told how they have been able to support Manchester students in the same financial straits that she had gone through. She told Ben how proud of him she was for his decision to go to Cairo. And she told what a thrill it was to enclose for him a check in exactly the amount that she had once needed to graduate.

Bonnie and I do not have to look into a pond in order to know that ripples are circular. Sometimes God blesses us with the marks we've left on others.

Nehemiah didn't go to Jerusalem so that he would get a book of the Bible named after him, and grandpa didn't knock on the Frase door so that Ron would start a program for his grandson. These folks were simply passing on the marks that others had left on them. Elsa Distelhorst and I had coffee last week with a financial director named Gerry Wong, class of '69. Gerry had just delivered a message in the office of "we will do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may." When we began talking about Whitworth, Gerry referred to profound influence of business professor, Harry Dixon. "What do you remember about him," we asked. "His integrity and commitment to truthfulness," Gerry replied. We laughed when simultaneously we realized that the message Gerry delivered before sitting down with us was Harry Dixon's mark, rippling through history.

We can hear these stories and think what a small world this is. Or we can hear these stories and rightly see God's loving hand at work in human lives. But students, God's providence does not cancel our responsibility to make good decisions. If God is all-sovereign, and we are made in God's image, it is absurd to deny that we have freedom and bear responsibility for certain decision-making spheres in our lives. King David and the Apostle Peter both made good decisions and bad decisions. They left good marks and bad marks. They had choices. They were not simply puppets in God's staging of history.

What I am asking you to do today is to think about the marks that will be left by your decisions and by your lives. Your legacy can ripple through history, through a single life, or through a nation. No matter what you choose for an occupation, you can set in motion an influence that will never end.

So leave good marks. And never forget the most redeeming marks in all of history, the marks on his hands, the marks on his feet, the marks on his brow, the marks on our hearts. God bless you as you make history this second semester.