2016 Convocation Address

by Dr. David W. Whitlock

Once again, we gather as an academic community to commence the launch of another year, another class on Bison Hill. This seasonal shift is a familiar ritual repeated throughout our nation from elementary schools and home schools to university systems. For a significant part of our populace, this is a time of year that brings about excitement, stress, and for many, a time of reflection. Like birthdays and certain holidays, this time of the year marks significant milestones celebrated by pictures of students plastered on social media of children with new school clothes on their first day of kindergarten, apprehensive looking youth on their first day of high school, and young men and women with faces that reveal both exhilaration and fear on their first day of college. These pictures are often accompanied by wistful comments longing for life to slow down, a yearning for simpler times. I can relate. Our point in history is marked by an increasingly complex and polarized world marked by rapid change and too little time. 

So begins another academic year—another milestone—in the midst of 2016 A.D., anno Domini, the Year of our Lord.  The Year of our Lord. I stress this because, 2016 is a year in which many are lamenting deteriorating world conditions, the demise of civility, the dangers of extremism, terrorism, and violence, and the seemingly ubiquitous anger of the populace.  Couple this with the final stages of what will surely be remembered as the most bizarre U. S. election cycle in recent history and the rise of social media, which is often nothing more than an outlet for unsubstantiated rumor, and you have a recipe for general unhappiness and widespread angst.  

While social media has democratized the sharing of news and information, it has also democratized the spread of bad ideas and falsehoods.  All of this feeds a restless world, much of which is just looking for a reason and outlet to justify an already locked and loaded anger.  It strikes me that a host of people are angry—at everything and at nothing in particular. 

And yet, this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord.  Jesus reigns.  His sovereignty and control is not diminished in 2016 any more than it was in the days of World War II, any more than in the brutal days of our own nation’s slavery, any more than in the days of Genghis Khan, or the days of Nero, Caligula or Diocletian and their respective persecutions of Christ’s church. 

Whether we can possibly fully understand it, as believers and followers of Jesus, we believe and hold to the assurance and conviction that all things are being worked together ultimately for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.  We have this faith—held as foolishness by the world—that in spite of what may happen around us, it will all culminate precisely as a good and loving God intends, with all things made right, all accounts settled, all evil appropriately dealt, and all things made new and perfect.

Easy comes the belief that things are worse today than at any time in history. Tempting is the feeling that having been born in a different time or era or place, our lives and our work might have been simpler or better. Such thoughts are patently false however, and the Word of God is clear. 

In Acts 17:24-28, as he spoke with the leading philosophers in the Areopagus in Athens, Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

God determined the allotted periods and boundaries of our dwelling place. Incredible it is to consider that God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, determined the allotted periods—that is the point of time in history—and the boundaries—that is the territory and geographical nations—of our dwelling places. God made each of us uniquely for this era, this point in history.  God chose the location where we were born, chose where we were raised, and purposed where we are now.  By His hand and by His will, we were made for Him, for this place, for this hour. And in Him we live and move and have our being.

So I have been thinking. You know it’s a dangerous thing some believe for a university president to start thinking. It makes faculty nervous, and makes provosts perspire.  In fact, it’s often said that on a university campus, the role of the faculty is to think for the university, the role of the president is to speak for the university, and the role of the provost is to keep the faculty from speaking for the university and to keep the president from thinking for the university. 

But I cannot help myself.  I’ve been thinking… Praying and thinking.  Dreaming and thinking.  Imagining and thinking.  In light of Christ’s reign and rule, in light of God’s sovereignty in choosing us for this place at precisely at this point in His grand story, how should we then move forward as a distinctively Christian university?  How should we approach this great privilege of living in community and fulfilling our potential?  How should we proceed in successfully conducting our mission?

Our mission is noble. As a Christian liberal arts university, OBU transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.

As crucial as is our mission so are our University’s five core values. We are: Christ centered, Excellence Driven, Learning Focused, Missional Purposed, and Community Directed. Our mission and values drive who we are and what we do, and the boundaries of our actions. 

Yet, I’ve been thinking not just of our mission and core values. I’ve been thinking much lately of our purpose— the why of who we are, and how and what we do. There is within our mission statement a glimpse of our real purpose. In the midst of this well-crafted statement of who we are, and how and what we do (and amplified by and through our core values), we find this gem of the why we are a Christian liberal arts university. We find the reason why we equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ. 

Within our mission, and guided by our values, we find the essence of our real purpose. We transform lives.  Now our purpose is fuller than this, and in drafting a purpose statement we may choose to enrich the language.  But, as I’ve been thinking and praying and dreaming and imagining, I am struck with the importance of daily reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

Professionally and in the context of our mission and core values at OBU, why do we do what we do?  But more so as an individual, why am I here?  Not what or who am I, or how or what do I do, but why am I here personally?  How our purpose is carried out can be found in the classroom as well as behind the scenes. For example, helping to organize our formal convocation today, to prepare the stage, to have all things ready for our official start to the year are scores of individuals who have been working tirelessly without the pomp and circumstance. They have physically labored to move equipment in, to have the turf outside mowed, and to have the air conditioning, electrical systems, and sound equipment in order. These electricians, and plumbers, carpenters and HVAC professionals are skilled and certified for the job that they do.  

So why are they doing what they do here on Bison Hill? They are using their skills and abilities, their talents and vocations here at OBU because they share and are committed to our mission, our values, our purpose. With all who labor here whether in accounting, secretarial offices, admissions, academic services, or on the faculty, they choose to serve here to fulfill the mission of equipping the students for lives of purpose. They choose to invest their talents and work at OBU because they love God, and they love knowing that they are helping to change the world through the ones we educate and send out.  They labor here because they love students and get just as misty-eyed and full of satisfaction when students successfully complete their courses of study and graduate as the faculty do and as I do.

Not a commencement goes by that I do not see Dave Gilmore, our HVAC specialist, holding doors open for students and faculty, pitching in to help with all of the extra details, displaying a broad smile and brimming with pride as each graduate marches by. He is here to perform a job but he serves here for a greater purpose.

The one who fixes your plumbing late at night, who shovels the snow off the sidewalks in bad weather, and the one who rides the mower that we barely notice—their work matters because they are helping to transform lives. 

Each of us has a mission that defines who we are and what we do. And each of us has a purpose. Our purpose can be fulfilled a number of different ways. Careers and jobs and positions and roles may help describe our mission—who we are and how and what we do. But our purpose gets to the heart of why.  

Once we discover and then develop our purpose, we can find satisfaction in a multitude of careers, jobs, situations. Because our purpose exists and continues whether or not our job or career or location or platform changes.  Our purpose exists and continues regardless of current economic or social trends and conditions.  Our purpose exists and continues regardless of shifting morals and political winds of change.

To our faculty.  You are engaged in the heart of our mission. Our mission is most directly fulfilled through your work with our students. To equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ is the responsibility of every employee; but central to our academic identity is your investment in the classroom. We rise or fall, succeed or fail upon the faculty’s work of educating and preparing the student not simply to make a living, but to make a life.

Faculty, how you teach, mentor, and model matters.  How you fulfill your purpose on Bison Hill, and what you do with your calling to prepare each of these students for his or her calling matters. In equipping our students to be men and women who are able to lead and serve, much rests on your shoulders.  

To our office and administrative staff, support personnel, and facilities management staff, our mission and our purpose of transforming lives depends upon your faithful service.  Your own modeling of hard work and dedication, your own examples of serving others and living the Christian life matters.  Your word of encouragement, your prayer, your support and engagement with our students is life transforming.  Your work matters.  Our mission depends upon you fulfilling your purpose, which enables our students to fulfill theirs.

Students, you are at the heart of both our University’s mission and purpose. Yet, even you are here to discover, prepare, and begin to fulfill your personal purpose. You are certainly here to receive an education, obtain a degree, and prepare for a career.  But these goals get at what you are doing and what you are becoming; these get at the who and how of your preparation.  Critical, yes. But think deeper. Think about the “Why?” 

In other words, if you are preparing to be a teacher, a professional, an artist, scientist, go into medicine, music, or missions, come to understand that those are the means by which you fulfill your purpose. Science is your platform. The arts are your platform.  Your profession is your platform. Your purpose is the reason why you have a platform. 

During your time and preparation here, you will be equipped for service and leadership using that platform. You will be equipped to pursue academic excellence, because as a Christ follower we are to strive for excellence in the areas and platforms we are entrusted to serve and lead.  

You will be equipped to integrate faith with all areas of knowledge because we believe that all knowledge and truth is God’s truth, and like Augustine, we give faith a priority in the relationship between faith and reason. 

You will be equipped here to engage a diverse world, because God loves the world, because other people matter, because you must better understand the world in order to be more effective in your calling and in fulfilling your purpose. 

You will be equipped to live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ, because those around us need our witness. Because we are called by God to a such a great salvation and hope, and because we are called by God’s Word as a royal priesthood, we should walk as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Our collective efforts here on Bison Hill, are focused on coming alongside you at this marvelous moment in life to accomplish the worthy mission of equipping you. My challenge to students is to think more deeply than just your vocational calling, to think more deeply even than about your mission—that is, who you are and what you do. Use your time here to explore your purpose, and think about how you are going to steward your career, your platform, and how your will steward your time and preparation here on Bison Hill.

Students, you are here for such a time as this.  I pray that for the world you are inheriting and soon will lead, that you will become as sons of Issachar. Following the death of King Saul and his sons by the Philistines, all of Israel began to gather at Hebron to join with and proclaim David as King.  Mighty warriors gathered to him there and among them were the chiefs of the Tribe of Issachar.  We read in 1 Chronicles 12:32a: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…” They are described as men who understood the times and knew what to do. 

Students, you are chosen for this hour of history to prepare for life in the service of a greater King than David—that is the eternal Son of God, Jesus. You are divinely appointed for this hour to prepare to be equipped to lead, to be equipped to serve.  You are here at this place, at this point in history, to be equipped as sons and daughters of Issachar—that is, as men and women of King Jesus, men and women who understand the times and know what to do. 

How you prepare is vital. How you study is crucial.  Whether you are to serve as an artist, lawyer, poet, business professional, musician, scientist, teacher, missionary, minister, doctor, nurse, or philosopher, you’re calling is to prepare well, to seek excellence.  You are to become the best in your field. But beyond that, you are to use your careers, to use those platforms in which you serve, to fulfill your purpose. 

Much sooner than any of us can comprehend, the world will be led, governed, served, and determined by you and your generation. The future of our churches, our institutions, our governments will be determined and shaped by you. Prepare well for the future. We are counting on you.

Be often reminded that your purpose in life transcends any positions or titles or careers or job descriptions you will hold. Invest your time wisely on Bison Hill. What you do here matters. Steward well your opportunities on Bison Hill. 

Indeed, to all of us who follow Jesus, who have placed our faith, our lives, and our futures in Him. Our work, our efforts, our words and our actions have great consequence. 

Yes, I’ve been thinking. Our world is lost and hurting and needs us to serve as ambassadors of Christ, as bearers of the Good News.  

I’ve been thinking. In a racially and ethnically divided world, we who are followers of Christ are needed to intentionally engage in the work of reconciliation, to seek the reconciliation of others with God through Christ, and to lead the efforts for racial and ethnic reconciliation both here and abroad.

I’ve been thinking.  In a world fraught with social ills, followers of Christ are needed to stand up for the downtrodden, defend the defenseless, help free whose enslaved by human trafficking, and love the ones who finds themselves alone and marginalized, and to do so consistent with the teaching of God’s Word. 

I’ve been thinking. In a world that values monetary success and power structures, Christ followers are needed to show a more excellent way, a way of leading by serving. May we demonstrate the counterintuitive model of putting others before self and leading with humility and love.

I’ve been thinking. In our own country as we enter the final stages of a political season and presidential election, we who follow Jesus are needed to show that no political party dictates, owns, or fully represents the Christian perspective or vote. Whatever our leanings, may we recognize that we are made one, not by political party, but in Christ. May we remind ourselves that no political ideology, movement, or candidate will solve the great challenges facing our nation and world. Only God can change hearts and minds and only God can heal a nation.

I’ve been thinking. In an age when the loudest, angriest voices in the room demand the most attention, let our quiet dignity, actions, and words, as well as our love, gentleness, patience, and self-control define us.  Let our winsome witness drown out the madness. May we be found keeping Christ’s Great Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I’ve been thinking.  In a time of diminishing religious liberty around the world, let us lend our voices and efforts to the cause of those who are persecuted, marginalized, mistreated, tortured, and martyred because of their faith.

I’ve been thinking. In an era where it is tempting to think that the world has come unhinged and that the challenges ahead are too daunting, let us be reminded that this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. Jesus reigns. And we have work to do. We have a mission. We have a purpose to fulfill.