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If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see

2020 Ouachita Commencement address

Ben Sells' 2020 commencement addressDecember 08, 2020 - Ben R. Sells

Editor's Note: The May 2020 Commencement, because of the pandemic, was rescheduled and held Dec. 5, 2020 at Cliff Harris Stadium on Ouachita's campus with the approval of the Arkansas Department of Health.

It’s a Ouachita tradition that the President, rather than a guest, gives the Commencement Address. It ensures brevity. And, it provides the opportunity to share a final message of our hopes for you in the context of Ouachita’s approach to Christian higher education.

Lisa and I arrived at Ouachita in 2016 like many of you. We feel a special kinship with you because we began our Ouachita journey together. That kinship, however, isn’t based just on the years we’ve spent together but on what we’ve lived through together – a pandemic of great enduring consequence.

I’ve deliberated more on what to share with you today than I have for any other Commencement. I’ve asked myself how to avoid saying too little or too much about the times in which we live. To avoid acknowledging the pandemic is to ignore when, where, and how we’ve assembled today.

Ouachita is a university that makes paramount a love of God and a love of learning. We aspire to help prepare you to serve the purposes of God in your generation. Therefore, I believe it’s important and timely that we reflect on this question: “How then shall we live, both in the shadow of a pandemic and in the light of eternity?”

"How then shall we live, both in the shadow of a pandemic and in the light of eternity?"
Dr. Ben Sells

From the long span of human experience, we learn that crises, whether global or personal, change and shape our being. We know that the undergraduate college years result in significant personal growth because they coincide with such a formative stage in life. The intersection of your college years and COVID-19 make it very possible that this crisis will have a profound impact on your life and set your generation apart from all others. 

It’s been said that adversity reveals character. It has for Ouachita. For example:

I remember, beginning last March, the faculty and staff, out of a deep calling and commitment to serve students, labored non-stop for your good to pivot from a highly residential learning approach to one that had to be remote yet as personal as possible.

I remember alumni, friends, and churches – who we stopped asking for financial contributions last Spring out of respect for the struggles they were going through – kept giving anyway, allowing us to meet 99% of our need.

And, I remember seniors departing from campus the last time, some in tears, and some gathering for prayer in Berry Chapel. I remember how you prayed for me.

Your resilience to finish in the face of adversity also resulted in the highest four-year graduation rate in Ouachita’s recorded history.

Whether you’re a 2020 graduate and were in the final weeks of your Ouachita experience when the pandemic hit, or a 2019 graduate and in the early days of your newfound work or graduate studies, you’ll likely never forget last spring.

Indeed, this crisis confirmed the essential character of Ouachita. We can forever bear witness to the good that was done here when it counted most. We give thanks to the Lord and for all the people, past and present, who have made Ouachita, Ouachita.

Yes, crises and adversity reveal character and the experiences may also illuminate a truth – truth that changes our heart, our habits, and our hopes for our future – truth that also forges character.

At Ouachita, we value truth. We believe we learn truth from the written word, the Bible; from following the living word, Jesus Christ; and from studying the world and its people.

It seems appropriate at this final moment of your Ouachita experience to consider the truths your Ouachita education has revealed to you and how those truths are changing your character for good. I believe that you should consider this question. I can’t answer it for you, but by way of illustration, I can share one of my own answers.

"At Ouachita, we value truth. We believe we learn truth from the written word, the Bible; from following the living word, Jesus Christ; and from studying the world and its people."
Dr. Ben Sells

In the mid-1990’s, a family crisis led us to resign from a job, sell our home, change careers, and move across the country. It was the right course of action for Lisa and me, but it was also hard because it involved a great many unknowns for our family.

I still remember what an older, wiser Christian said to me back then – a sentence his mentor had said to him 50 years earlier: “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.” [1]

Twenty-five years ago, I intuitively understood what he meant, but it took a pandemic to help me realize its full meaning and fully apply it to my daily life. Even so, that realization didn’t come all at once.

Over the course of your years at Ouachita, I suspect there were many times of challenges and confusion. There have been for me, and none greater than the last several months, especially in the spring. We had to make so many consequential decisions in such a short amount of time. We couldn’t see very far ahead. At times it felt as if we couldn’t see even an hour ahead.

Maybe twenty years from now, when one of my own grandchildren might be graduating from college or making a difficult career decision, they might ask me for some advice. I’ll be hard-pressed to offer anything more useful than “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.”

I’ll likely use the moment to tell them about you and how we found our way forward together in the spring of 2020.

I’ll probably share how I went deeper into my daily discipline of time with the Lord by immersing myself in the Psalms because they helped me to better know God and understand life, by praying about everything, and by using prayerful reflection to guide the many decisions.  This past spring, I experienced in real time the truth of Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” [2]

"If you can't see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see."
Dr. Ben Sells

I’ll probably also share about going broader to seek wisdom from others. “If you can’t see very far ahead,” I’ll say, “don’t go alone.” Ouachita is fortunate to have wise faculty, staff, trustees, and friends – the kind of people you want to go through a pandemic with. They exemplify Proverbs 20:18: “Form your purpose by asking for counsel, then carry it out using all the help you can get.” [3]

And, I’ll probably share about going forward by the light available. Even in uncharted darkness a small flashlight can guide a small group a long way as is the case with even an inkling of faith. I’ll recall the promise of the prophet Jeremiah (29:11), “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” [4]

In the midst of last spring, after going deeper with the Lord, and broader with wise colleagues, and farther with sight and faith, I began to realize, pandemic or not, we never can truly see very far ahead, even less so without faith, without family, and without strong, unselfish companions.

Ouachitonians, in this, our final gathering, may I suggest that it’s well worth your time to ask “How then shall we live, both in the shadow of a pandemic and in the light of eternity?” And, to consider what truths have been illuminated for you and how your character is being formed for good.

Friends, when those times come when you’re not quite sure how to proceed – and they will, then consider the advice that has proven so helpful to me. “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.”

Every graduating class deserves heartfelt congratulations. But this year, we feel it deeper when we say to you, “Congratulations!” Well done!


Ben SellsBy Dr. Ben R. Sells, Ouachita president

 

 

 

[1] The advice to me – “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see” – came from Ralph Winter (1924-2009), founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, where Lisa and I served and was influential in our lives. Winter’s presentation at the 1974 Congress on World Evangelization is recognized for bringing attention to the concept of “unreached people groups.” In 2005, Winter was named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. Winter told me the advice came to him from one of his mentors, Dawson Trotman (1906-1956), who founded The Navigators and is often credited with highlighting the importance of one-on-one discipleship in the evangelical movement.

[2] King James Bible, Book of Psalms.

[3] The Message Bible, Book of Proverbs.

[4] Revised Standard Version Bible, Book of Jeremiah.

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