Note: Both of my parents passed away in 2007, my mother in February and my father the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Following is a “letter to my parents” I would have written if they were alive, sharing about my first semester at Ouachita and what the Lord is teaching me. My father was the president and later chancellor at Southwest Baptist University which cultivated my interest in Christian higher education. Reading this letter—written as an informal letter rather than a formal address—served as my remarks for Chapel on November 29.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Lisa and I describe ourselves as “freshmen at Ouachita.” Knowing that you never made it to campus, I’m writing to tell you about my first semester at Ouachita and to share some of what the Lord is teaching me.
You’ll be glad to know that purple, your school’s color, is our school’s color as well. As you remember, it’s also my favorite color. But, I quickly learned that one has to be careful about wearing red because that’s the color of this school across the street that can’t be named.
Speaking of purple, you won’t believe what happened the first week of school. When I gave students a Twitter challenge and promised that if they met it I would paint myself purple. I realize you don’t know what Twitter is. It’s a simple way to use 140 characters or less to tell the world how great Ouachita students, faculty, staff, and alumni are.
I thought it would take our students a couple of days to meet the challenge, but they did it in a few hours. As a result, I had to paint myself purple for the first football game. When I arrived at the game in purple, I couldn’t believe how many students wanted to take pictures with me. Ouachita students are really nice.
Besides liking purple, our students also like pancakes which is convenient because I do, too. In fact, late one night Ms. Jeannette and I served chocolate chip pancakes to 400 students. She works in the Caf, which is short for Cafeteria, and they love Ms. Jeanette. If Ms. Jeannette had been a candidate for Ouachita’s president—or even president of the United States—she might have won.
I wish you could have attended an amazing Homecoming tradition that the students call Tiger Tunes. I went to the show three times. Wow, can our students sing and dance. It makes me wonder if our students practice dancing more than I know.
Several family members have made trips to Arkadelphia, and they always remark about the beauty of the campus. It is a beautiful campus, and the Ouachita River runs right by it. Funny thing, though, is that it’s difficult to see the river from the campus. I’d like to do something about that—to be able to see the river from the Student Center—but I probably need to wait until I’m a sophomore.
Mom, you would enjoy planting and caring for your flowers in this climate. Dad, you enjoyed raking leaves, and there are a lot of leaves to rake in South Arkansas! When I smell leaves burning, I remember all the times we raked leaves together. I wish we could do that again because there are so many things I would like to talk with you about and get your advice.
Mom and Dad, as I get older and parent adult children, I’m even more grateful for you—not only the parents you were when I was a child—but the parents you were to me as an adult. In the last decade, there have been so many times I wanted to say “thank you.” There have also been times I wanted to say “I’m sorry” when remembering things I did or said—or didn’t say or do.
One of the qualities I most admired about both of you was how you believed in and encouraged me. During my adult years, one of my most enduring memories of you is how you seemed to always finish a conversation with an encouraging word. That memory makes me think of Hebrews 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
I want to be an encourager, but only recently have I seen the relationship between how encouraging others also discourages them from being tempted by sin. I want Ouachita students to know that I believe in them. I want to find more ways to encourage them. I want them to dream a larger dream about what God can do in them and through them.
You would like Ouachita students. A friend of mine who has visited many colleges and is nationally recognized as a math professor, was recently on campus and sent me the following text message:
“…good campus, good faculty, but if you really want to impress someone, show them the students! Impressive bunch.”
And, we have faculty and staff who have committed to invest their lives in students. Not too long ago, someone who visited Ouachita for the first time wrote me the following paragraph:
“I also wanted to pay the highest of compliments to your faculty and staff we met with during our visit. I’ve worked for a couple of different colleges and universities and had high expectations of professionalism and kindness—but your faculty and staff surpassed them with their clear talent for hospitality and passion for what they do and the students they serve.”
Mom and Dad, it was about a year ago that the presidential search process became serious. Part of the reason I was so drawn to Ouachita is because of its vision statement that talks about “fostering a love of God and a love of learning” in its students.
From the first time I heard that phrase, it resonated deeply with me. I couldn’t get it off my mind. Maybe it made such an impact on me because it reflects what Jesus said was the first and greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
During my devotional times this fall, I’ve been thinking about this important question: “What does it mean to grow in my love of God?” One of the insights I learned in the last decade about my own spiritual growth is that it helps to talk and write about what I’m learning. So, let me make an attempt to share two or three thoughts with you about what I’ve learned about growing in my love of God. It’s definitely a work in progress.
During this semester, I’ve been reminded of a verse I memorized fifteen years ago, Matthew 5:8, that reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
I’ve written it this way: “To love God, I need to be able to see God, and to see God I need to be pure in heart.” Mom and Dad, regardless of our age or gender, to be pure in heart is a challenge, isn’t it? It certainly seems more challenging today because it’s so easy to read, watch, and think about things that are not pure.
As I’ve thought more about being “pure in heart,” I’ve found myself meditating on Philippians 4:8. You’ll remember this verse that says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on those things.”
That got me thinking about how being at a Christian college can help me put this verse into practice. I’m still refining this thought, but it goes something like this:
Because God’s word is true and all truth is God’s truth, the very nature of a Christian liberal arts education helps us learn about truth in every discipline, and as we discover the truths, as well as things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, good and excellent, we can dwell on them.
In other words, Mom and Dad, as I dwell on what is true—and there are many opportunities every day—it helps me be a person with a more pure heart, which helps me to see God, which helps me to grow in my love of God. I’m not quite ready to have one of our Christian Studies faculty grade me on how I’ve articulated all of this, but it’s been helpful to me.
As I’ve thought more about what it means to love God, it’s caused me to think about other things that I love.
For example, you two as my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic which Lisa and I have passed on to our children. Thank you. I like to work, and believe the desire to work, to create, even the desire for success, is part of how God, the Creator, hard-wired all of us. My work, in fact the work of any person trying to live out the Gospel, is a way that we worship—a way that we love God.
However, I need to be on alert that I can begin to love my work—or love anything that I enjoy—and let it eclipse my love of God. It’s possible that we can love something so much that it becomes like an idol. This thought really hit home when someone defined an idol as “anything that demands more and more from us, but gives less and less.”
Here’s an example. Mom and Dad, there’s something called Netflix that makes it possible to watch a year’s worth of shows in just one weekend. I can speak from experience that sometimes it’s fun to watch two or three episodes in one sitting.
One time in my life I watched hours of the show West Wing over a slow weekend. I didn’t intend to do it, and what started as benign became a binge. I had known what it’s like to binge on ice cream, but not television. When it was all over, I felt like life had been sucked out of me. Well, that seems a little like the definition of an idol, something “demanding more and more, but giving less and less.”
By the way, if you could have visited us, we would have invited you to watch two shows that Lisa, Tyler, and I have enjoyed this year, The Flash and The Good Life.
After re-reading the last few paragraphs, maybe what I’ve written isn’t very clear—I told you this was a work in progress. Let’s see if I can summarize.
Sometimes it seems easy to live as if God doesn’t exist, and then slowly, even good things and good people, become more important to me than God. I’ve determined that to grow in my love of God, I want to become more conscious of Him—to think more about God, to pray more throughout the day.
A verse that has been helpful is Ephesians 3:20, “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” I’m glad God will help me.
One more thought about growing in my love of God. You know how it is when you read the Bible, even a verse you’ve read a hundred times, and it jumps out and grabs you?
That’s what happened one day this fall when I read Genesis 4:7 when God says to Cain, after Cain was sulking, warning him that “sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, and you’ve got to master it.”
Isn’t that a great but scary word picture—sin is lying in wait to pounce on us.
That verse caused me to look more deeply at other resources to better understand this idea. One person wrote that we have to learn to hate sin.
That led me to write the following: “To grow in my love of God, I need to grow in my hate of sin in my life.” I understood that sin is falling short of God’s standard, and the admonition not to sin.
But, it was a new thought about hating sin—and growing in my hate of sin in my life.
More than ever before, Mom and Dad, I see the reality that we live in a world that bears the consequences of sin. And, the reality that as I grow in my relationship with God, I’m more conscious of sin in my own life.
I’m reminded of what Lisa once said about sin, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.” And, when we do kill sin, we are growing in our love of God. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
In my journal, I copied the following from what someone wrote: “God put an uncompromising standard before us—be holy and don’t sin—and then sent his son to perfectly meet that standard on our behalf.” I’m so very grateful that through a relationship with Jesus Christ that He forgives my sin when I ask.
Mom and Dad, let’s see if I can summarize what I’ve learned so far about growing in my love of God:
- To grow in my love of God, I need to be able to see God, and to see God I need to be pure in heart. And, one way my heart becomes pure is by dwelling on things that are true.
- To grow in my love of God, I need to guard against loving other things more than God by becoming more conscious of God, knowing that his Spirit can help me.
- To grow in my love of God, I need to grow in my hate of sin in my own life. Just as sin is “lying in wait to pounce on us,” Jesus is standing and inviting us to have a relationship with him.
Well, I need to finish this letter. I shared with students in my first Chapel address that my life verse is Acts 13:36 where it was said of King David that “he served the purposes of God in his generation.” It’s my goal and prayer that Ouachita students would desire and feel prepared to serve God’s purposes in their generation.
I was recently reminded about all the potential of these students after stepping on an acorn one day. Remember, there are a lot of trees here, so there are a lot of acorns in the fall. While walking across campus with a student one day, we got to talking about how we both liked stepping on acorns. It sounds like walking on bubble wrap.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, that one little acorn holds an entire oak tree. We’re a small school, but I deeply believe these students can have a big impact on their world in a way that one acorn can. Dad, you liked poetry and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”
This fall, it’s been helpful to remember that my Christian college experience wasn’t transforming at first, but it developed over those four years of college. I remember coming to the understanding that I couldn’t have a relationship with God through my parents’ faith or because I had been in church all my life or because I went to a Christian college, though I’m very grateful for the testimony of your Christian faith and your consistent involvement in a local church and making it possible for me to attend a Baptist college.
I was a true college freshman 36 years ago. Wow, that’s the first time I’ve written it like that; it seems so long ago. Yet, I can’t help believe that while the times are so different in many ways, the really important questions on the mind of a Christian college student are not so different than they were for me.
Questions like: Who is God? Who am I? How do I relate to God? And, what does that mean for my life?
Mom and Dad, Ouachita is a really good place for students to wrestle with and begin to resolve these significant questions—questions that have implications for eternity—because we have faculty and staff and fellow students who love them. I love them. It’s why I’m here.
And, I would hope, and it’s my prayer, that as we finish this semester—the first semester of my freshman year—that students:
- would know they’re just one conversation away from having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
- Or, that students would know they’re just one conversation away from someone who wants to help them recommit or grow in their relationship with God.
- In other words, one conversation away from being able to grow in their love of God.
Mom and Dad, while I miss you deeply, especially at this time of the year, I know we’ll be together on the other side of eternity.
And, I look forward to introducing you to as many Ouachitonians as I can.
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