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Whitworth College Fall Convocation Address 2006

Sept. 7, 2006
Bill Robinson

New students: We're thrilled that you're here at Whitworth. This faculty is committed to your success. Start well. The way you begin stays with you. Your first semester is the only one that stays with you for the entire time you're here. You don't get a mulligan. Start well.

Sophomores: This is a big year for you. This isn't just a second try at your freshman year. It's a pivot year. Some of you underperformed last year. Maybe you were hoping for beginner's luck. Find an accountability partner to help you make your minutes count. This year will say a lot about your character. For those of you who did well last year, it's a big year for you, too. Sportscasters often talk about a sophomore jinx. It's not a jinx. It's a failure to remember just how hard you worked in order to excel in your first year. This is the year you make excellence a habit.

Juniors: This will be a great year. Many of you will hear a voice that beckons you. It will be the voice of your gifts, the voice of your interests, the voice of God. But there will be times this year when fatigue settles on you. Both the beginning and end of college will feel distant. Buy yourself a blueberry smoothie. You'll be fine.

Seniors: I cannot believe you have reached your senior year. I remember meeting one of you when I arrived at Whitworth in 1993. "What's your name?" I asked.
"How old are you?"
"What sport do you like?"
"Who's your favorite team?"
"I hate all teams that wear blue and gold."
I wasn't sure Colin was college material. Good thing our colors are red and black.

Seniors, don't leave anything here at Whitworth. Take everything we can give you. If something you thought would happen didn't happen in your first three years, it's not going to happen unless you make it happen this year. You are a great class. Thank you for the leadership you provide for us at Whitworth.

My remarks this morning are prompted by the book all of our first-year students read over the summer – Mountains Beyond Mountains. I still have 90 pages left, but basically the book chronicles the life of a man named Paul Farmer, a professor of medical anthropology at Harvard. After a rather bizarre and economically deprived childhood, Farmer graduated from Duke University and worked for a year in the central plateau of Haiti, probably the most impoverished and disease-ridden nation in the Western Hemisphere. In a nutshell, this raw-boned kid decided to take on the health of Haiti, and while he was at it, to change the way the world in general and the United Nations in particular thought about infectious disease and poverty. So he headed for Massachusetts and completed the rather challenging task of graduating from the Harvard Medical School while simultaneously picking up a Ph.D. in anthropology. He excelled in both programs, in spite of missing a ton of classes because he was busy saving lives in Haiti. He was and is, as they say in Boston, "wicked smaht."

Maybe some of you "undecideds" are thinking, "Hey, grab a couple of doctorates, build a hospital that treats 350,000 patients annually, improve the health and welfare of a small nation. . . . I'll do that." You might want to test the waters with a less ambitious health project. Like flossing.

What do we do with Paul Farmer? Like all of us, he is a flawed human being. But his towering intelligence and furious moral resolve just tear the limits off what we expect from one single life. You don't want to bump into this guy at a party. "Hi, my name is Paul and I've pretty much changed the health picture of Latin America; what have you been up to?"

Most of you are in the process of finding your vocation. Your gifts have begun to direct you. During Orientation I heard freshmen speak of becoming teachers, accountants, physicians, attorneys, curators and businesspeople.

College offers a wonderful environment in which to consider life goals. You're surrounded by great resources that can help you think about this. But you need to set reasonable goals. Both rehabbing world medical care and flossing will let you off the hook. One's too hard and one's too easy. You want to set goals that are just barely attainable. Goals that stretch you to the limit, but not ones so lofty that they cease to be goals at all. One time I asked the president of a large company to make a generous donation. Evidently I was leaning pretty hard, because he got out a legal pad and wrote down his monthly income and expenses to show me the unreasonableness of my request. When he showed me the amount of his take-home pay I stopped him and asked, "In your wildest imagination did you ever dream you'd be making this kind of money?" He answered, "Sure. When I started work here in the mailroom, I planned on becoming the president."

Most of us will not hear such a clear call. Even though the apostle Paul is stopped in his tracks by the audible voice of God, three times in his letters he makes the point that God calls most of us through the gifts we've been given. Your goals should line up with your calling, and your calling should line up with your gifts.

I had many takeaways from Mountains Beyond Mountains. I have long felt guilty about the immense privilege and responsibility of my birth. This book just kept piling it on. If Haiti is not my Haiti, what is? Who has too little of what I have in excess? How can I give more away? Where should I give more away? These are compelling questions, and I'm a coward if I don't answer them. But one thing about Paul Farmer struck me on every page. It's pretty simple, but it matters as much as anything this man did. He stayed. He persevered. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is showing up. No, it isn't. Do the arithmetic. Showing up is good. It takes initiative. It can be healing or encouraging. But perseverance is better. You can show up and not persevere, but you can't persevere without showing up. Haiti would be a different country if Paul Farmer hadn't stayed. He said no to huge riches, he said no to a comfortable bed, he said no to our culture's smorgasbord of privileges for people of his stature. You'd never have heard of Paul Farmer if he had not stayed with the poor and dying people of Haiti.

Great accomplishments do not happen without perseverance. Perseverance can rescue a nation, and it can rescue an individual. Ten years ago, at the beginning of her senior year, Sheila Maak sat where you're sitting. She had just gone on our Central America study program. That's life-changing and amazing. But basically, it's just showing up. But Sheila returned to Central America. After graduation she went back to Honduras for nine years before beginning her graduate education at Princeton University, where she is currently a student. While in Honduras Sheila met Iveth Canales, a bright young woman who faced serious odds against ever going to college anywhere. But Iveth and Sheila persevered. And astonishingly, Iveth made her way from the mountains of Honduras to Cowles Auditorium, where she is sitting this morning as a new Whitworth student.

I urge all of you to look at your lives. Ask the question, Where do I need to persevere? We need perseverance in all areas of life, but I would like to mention three in particular.

First, we need intellectual perseverance. Albert Einstein once observed, "It's not that I'm so smart; it's just that I stay with problems longer." Most of your faculty members, and for sure your president, will tell you that getting a Ph.D. depends more on perseverance than on brains. I fear some of you have underestimated your brainpower because our school systems undervalue intellectual perseverance. Too often in American education, we have equated intelligence with speed. A few years ago two of our students made track coach Toby Schwarz a happy man: Kristin Shields and Leslie Nelson were among the fastest runners in the nation; in fact, Kristin was a national champion. She ran the 100 meters, and Leslie ran the 10,000 meters. It's silly to debate who was faster. They ran different races. But all the timed testing in our school systems rewards the sprinter. That's bad. Intellectual sprinters can begin to think they're so smart they don't have to persist, while the distance thinkers might wonder if they have the intellectual capacity to start. Some of you have been told you're really smart, but you're lazy. Wrong. It's stupid to be lazy. Thinking is hard work. Some of you are quick thinkers and some of you are deliberate thinkers and some of you lie between these two extremes. But all of you need an unrelenting drive if you hope to reach your intellectual capacity.

In addition to intellectual perseverance, we need moral perseverance. In 1983, Paul Farmer was horrified by the health conditions in Haiti. He does what he does today because he stayed horrified. His eyes never adjusted to seeing treatable tuberculosis go untreated. It wasn't fair 23 years ago, and it isn't fair now. When Paul Farmer looks at Haiti, he sees moral injustice. Our worldview-studies program is designed to help you construct a moral foundation for your lives. You need one. Culture has a way of looking us in the eye and lying to us. And it is impossible to stand against culture if you are not standing on a foundation other than culture. You need a moral foundation that allows you to persevere against culture's lies – self-serving lies that say people suffering from poverty and disease aren't really your issue. They are. Reckless lies that say MTV sexual standards are fine. They're not. Self-destroying lies that say you should cheat because other people do it. You shouldn't. And subtle lies that say wasting large amounts of time doesn't hurt you. It does. There are a lot of lies out there. You know what they are – or at least you used to. Maybe you've slacked off in your moral perseverance. The beginning of a new year is a great time to reinforce or perhaps replace our moral foundations. Although culture is challenging, I am certainly not issuing a blanket condemnation of culture. Much of it is healthy and fun and enriching. Hiding from the whole of culture to protect ourselves from a part of it makes no sense. God has named Christians as agents in bringing Christ's redemption to all of creation; you can't do that by remote control. But we need durable moral standards. And the way to make those standards strong is by exercising them daily. If we insulate ourselves from culture, our moral foundation will atrophy and crumble when moral challenges invade our cocoons. But if we plunge thoughtlessly into culture, we will be seduced, just like Samson. And we too will become blind, blind to what's right and wrong. We need to be in culture, but we need moral strength and endurance.

Finally, people of faith need a third kind of perseverance: spiritual perseverance. We're told two things in the Bible that you might want to keep in mind. First, the book of James tells us that if we pull close to God, God will pull close to us. This is the deal of the century. If you can fit God into your schedule, he'll fit you into his. Be smart. Do this. Second, Jesus loves perseverance. He's always rewarding it. One of my favorite perseverance Bible stories is the one about the four guys who take their paralytic friend to be healed by Jesus. When they get to the house where Jesus is holding forth, it's too crowded for them to get in. But they stay. They don't give up. One of them gets the bright idea to hook up their buddy's mat to ropes, cut a big hole in the roof, and lower this guy right into Jesus' lap. I would be willing to bet this was not the lame man's idea. There's a lot that could go wrong with this plan. Not to mention the fact that it's kind of an embarrassing way to enter a room, sort of like a large spider. As his buddies suspend him over the hole, you can almost hear the paralytic: "Stop, stop! I'm gonna kill you guys. You better hope he doesn't heal me because… Hello there, don't mind me. Just thought I'd drop in and see if I could get healed."

Jesus rewards their perseverance. First, he forgives the man of his sins; then he heals him. Jesus still forgives and heals those who pursue him.

Steadfast is good. But it's easier said than done. If you want to develop the kind of staying power that kept Paul Farmer in Haiti, that kept Sheila Maak in Honduras, and that kept the paralytic man and his friends from giving up, I suggest two qualities – grace and truth. You'll need grace to keep you patient, and you'll need truth to keep you impatient. As you plow forward, you'll need grace to forgive others for letting you down. You'll need grace to forgive yourself for letting up. You'll need grace to keep a soft spirit as hardships and disappointments put obstacles before you. You'll need grace to keep you patient. But you'll need truth to keep you impatient. You'll need truth to resist the voices that say "It will all work out eventually." You'll need truth to remind to remind you that your persistence is worth it. You'll need truth to keep you from becoming weary in doing good. You'll need truth to keep you impatient.

Perseverance feeds on grace and truth. Without grace, Paul Farmer would have felt too angry toward the United Nations and too hopeless toward the Haitian people to keep persevering. And without truth, he would have redefined Haiti's horrid health conditions as the inevitable consequence of poverty. He would not have stayed in this diseased nation for the sake of a lie. Without grace and truth, Paul Farmer could not have persevered.

Gospel writer John says Jesus was filled with grace and truth. He must have been. He wouldn't have persevered to the cross without grace and truth. We didn't earn such an outrageous sacrifice. It was God's grace. And Jesus didn't stay on the cross because he hoped it would help. He stayed because he took God's promise as truth.

I wish all of you perseverance in this new year. Don't give up. The rewards of perseverance are great. Pursue your studies with perseverance. Pursue your vocation with perseverance. Pursue your best dreams with perseverance. Pursue Christ with perseverance, knowing that forgiveness and healing await you. And pursue everything with grace and truth. You won't endure without both. Hear the Hebrew writer:

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he persevered the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition, and you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Have a great year.