Convocation Address delivered by President Brent Ellis on September 6, 2013
First community address as President of Spring Arbor University.
As we are beginning a new year, I want to tell you a story about a few years back when I was beginning my doctoral work at Indiana University. One of the first classes I took was on qualitative research, and the first words the professor spoke were these: “Christians are the most ignorant people on the face of the earth. They think they know what truth is. They have no idea what truth is.” As he went on to explain metaphysical truth, scientific truth, and empirical truth, I sat there and thought, “What should my response be? What do I do? I’m new here. I don’t know any of the students. And I know nothing about this professor. What should my response be?”
Our scripture text, 1 Peter 3:15, says that in our hearts we are to set apart Christ as Lord. We are to be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect.
As I think about the privilege of being a part of Spring Arbor University, and I think about the opportunity that our faculty and that our staff have to engage you as learners, and to aide you in your preparation, your growth, and your development as men and women of Christ, I truly believe that our University Concept provides a phenomenal framework as we consider what it means to prepare to be a critical participant in a contemporary world.
In summary, the Concept says this: We are a community of learners. We participate in learning together. We recognized our faculty members today who have earned terminal degrees. They model that what you learn and what you acquire within your time at Spring Arbor University is not the end of learning for you. It is an introduction of learning. You are learning how to learn. We all continue the process of learning. And we are a community of learners where we share the learning process.
We are distinguished by our involvement in the study and in the application of the liberal arts. We do not just have theoretical ideas and constructs in our mind. We also have an idea of how those truths, those skills, and those abilities are useful to discern and to critique and to articulate ideas and concepts. Through the lens of Christ as our perspective for learning we can engage the world in a manner that can make a difference. We can be prepared to apply knowledge appropriately. Another way of saying that is “wisdom.” Pursue wisdom in your life. Engage the world and use your gifts, your talents, your passions, and the skills you will acquire here to make a difference in this world for Christ and for his kingdom. That is wisdom: Knowledge applied appropriately.
There are three commitments that I want to walk through with you today in regard to the broader idea of pursuing wisdom. Number one, the faculty and staff we are going to make a commitment to you to provide excellence in teaching and in learning. Number two, we are going to make a commitment to you that faith will permeate all aspects of our university community. Thirdly, we are going to be effective in global change as we serve as ambassadors for Christ. As those three things play themselves out, we fulfill the Concept in a beautiful and a marvelous way and we prepare you to be strong ambassadors of Christ to this world.
In regard to excellence in teaching and learning, our faculty are experts within their content area. And we are going to hold you to a high academic standard. We don’t want you to come here and not be challenged. We don’t want you to come here and just show up to class, take your test, go home, and not be pushed. We are going to engage you in serious academic study and preparation. And here is why: because the world demands that. If you’re going to be a strong ambassador for Christ in the future, you need to be prepared for what you choose to do. So own that responsibility as students. Push yourself. Take the most challenging courses you can take. At times, if you want to go beyond what the faculty might require of you, read broadly. Engage with this world and be excellent in your area of study.
Our faculty ground every aspect of what they teach in their faith and make that connection apparent. Proverbs 9:10 says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” If we seriously believe in a Creator who made all that exists, then every aspect of the pursuit of truth and study and inquiry must have its roots and foundations in Christ. Seeking knowledge without faith will never lead you to truth. Truth only exists as knowledge reflects God’s radical and transformational involvement in His creation. So we challenge you as students to submit to God, ask for Him to lead and guide you in ways that are consistent with his will, and allow faith to be the guiding principle in everything that you are and everything that you do.
The final piece is the idea of effecting global change as an ambassador of Christ. Our faculty do a marvelous job in engaging this world. They do a marvelous job in using their gifts and their talents as a platform to speak truth. We have faculty who have written books, who publish articles, who speak nationally and internationally, who truly are ambassadors of Christ around the world. But the position from which we want to approach you is that of humility. Our commitment to you is that we won’t stand upon the platform of expertise and credentials, but instead approach you in the same manner in which Christ approached us, with humility and with grace.
One of my favorite books is In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. He articulates this posture of service and ministry in teaching what we hope to employ with you. He says, “We are not the healers. We are not the reconcilers. We are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Respect your faculty, respect your staff. But understand that we, like you, are merely individuals who have received redemption from our Creator. As we approach you, we approach you in that manner and with that attitude. The challenge that I give to you, then, is to live your faith actively and compellingly—to own it, to find ways to apply it.
In 1 Peter 3:13 Peter is talking to a community of believers that have been scattered across Asia minor. As they were persecuted, they scattered. They found themselves in an area of the world that didn’t have any clue what Christianity was; didn’t have any respect or value for even the Jewish heritage in which many of these people came from. The believers were surrounded by a pagan society that did not understand in any way, shape, or form what Christianity was about.
In many ways, the world in which you are preparing to go out and engage is much more like that world than the world I inherited when I was a college student. Our world does not revere Christ. Our culture does not accept the teachings of Christ. In many ways it has become hostile to Christianity. People believe that Christians are bigots, that we are offensive, and in many ways at times we are.
Listen to what Peter says to Christians of his time in a similar context: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you’re blessed. Do not fear what they fear. Do not be frightened, but in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have, but do so with gentleness and respect.”
Now go back with me to my first class at Indiana University. My professor said, “Christians are the most ignorant people on the face of the earth.”
How do I respond? What is my role? I don’t know these students, I don’t know the faculty member, but I am a committed Christian man. I thought, well, if I speak up, how will the students respond? If I speak up, how will this faculty member respond? Will he hold me to a greater standard then everybody else? Am I shooting myself in the foot as I’m starting my doctoral program?
“Do not fear what they fear.” So what if I suffer? “Give an answer with gentleness and respect.” That’s what Peter says. So I raised my hand.
“Can I say something?”
He said, “What’s your name?”
I said, “My name is Brent. I want you to know I’m a Christian and I agree with your assessment of truth. So let me explain to you why I believe that Scripture is absolute truth.” And I went back to his argument on metaphysical truth, because metaphysical truth is based upon possibilities and probabilities. So unlike empirical truth, in which you can set out a sequence or ideas, or mathematical truth where regardless two plus two is always four, metaphysical truth allows you to look at possibilities and probabilities. In fact, in many ways it’s the nature in which we run our court system—beyond a reasonable doubt.
I said, “Let me ask you a question. When you walk outside the door today to go back to your car, will you duck?”
He said, “No.”
I said, “Well, do you know it is possible that a meteorite could strike you in the head? But it’s not probable.”
I said, “As a Christian, I look at Scripture and history and literature, and I ask myself, is it possible that Jesus Christ isn’t who he claims to be? I have to offer to you that it is possible, but it’s not probable. All the evidence points to the fact that Jesus Christ is who he claims to be. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and nobody comes to the Father but by Him. My thorough research and study brings me to the conclusion that all probability points to Christ as Lord and Savior. Then I base my life upon that truth, and it is absolute.”
Then I swallowed and I thought, “Okay , what’s he going to say?”
He looked at me and he said, “Brent, in all my years of teaching, I’ve never had a Christian articulate his faith in the manner in which you just did. Thank you.”
After class I had multiple students come up to me and say, “I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say. Thank you.”
Here’s my encouragement to you: Be bold. Be strong. Be courageous in the defense of your faith. Don’t fear what they fear. Even if you would suffer, don’t fear what they fear. In John 16:33 Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But, take heart. I’ve overcome the world.” As you function in a manner that keeps in mind the things of eternity in the midst of the temporal world, you realize that the worst thing this world can throw you is nothing compared to what God has already provided you. So, do not fear what they fear, but be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have with gentleness and respect.
So, here’s my challenge to you today: take time within this Spring Arbor University bubble to learn, and to grow, and to develop. Explore why you believe what you believe and prepare to go out and serve as a strong ambassador of Christ. Give a reason for the hope that you have.
In closing, I want to read one more quote from Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: “When we’re securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it’s possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.”
Would you make a commitment with me today that, in this time, you will prepare to be a true witness of Jesus Christ to this world? Even as our culture becomes more and more hostile, would you commit to learn and develop and grow? Use the resources that are available to you from this faculty, our staff, your peers, and your own faith, and learn to live a bold, dynamic life where you stand as a strong ambassador of Christ.