President John McVay's Inauguration Address

Distinguished guest and esteemed delegates, past presidents of Walla Walla college, board members and trustees, in particular in absentia our board chair and my friend, Dr Jere Patzer, the fearless Walla Walla college administrative team, faculty and staff colleagues, family members and friends, and, um, most especially, Walla Walla College students. Would that it were all true. Would that it were all true.  I thank you for being here today and joining in this celebration of Walla Walla College. It's high ideals and grand mission and for praying for all of us who seek to lead this institution. I am delighted to sign on as the number one fan of this place.

I call to mind three stories, illustrating one idea. The existence of Walla Walla College, of Walla Walla University, is a sacramental one.  It signals the presence of God. Its history harbors this grace-filled revelation.  God is leading in our story.  God is present in this place.  Three stories, one idea.

A little institution ekes out a tenuous existence.  A shoestring budget? No, this budget is so thin that it makes a shoestring look as massive as a tree trunk.  The roster for this particular year list the student’s name, the school is very small, the list is not long.  Above the list of students is the list of administration and faculty, but an odd list it is.  President - Prophet Elisha, Vice President for Academic Administration - Prophet Elisha, Vice President for Financial Administration - Prophet Elisha, Vice President for Advancement - Prophet Elisha.  All the vice presidency positions, all the deanships contain the same, single name Prophet Elisha and the monotony continues.  Professor of religion, professor of literature and language, professor of sacred music, dean of men, director of food service, director of Plant Services, all filled by the one, full time employee.  The Prophet Elisha.

The proposal has been, I suppose, much discussed, ratified maybe by the Student Senate.  The spokesperson for ASSP, the Associated Students of the School of the Prophets, clears his throat and tries, unsuccessfully the sound nonchalant in offering the suggestion.  "Prophet Elisha, as you see, the place where we live under your charge is too small for us."  At this the prophet shrugs his shoulders and grimaces his assent.  The spokesman continues, "Let us go to the Jordan and let us collect logs there one for each of us and build a place there for us to live."  Now you have to admire the Students who offer this request.  They might have approached the matter with a smug sense of entitlement, and demanded Elisha, "We are sick and tired of these second-rate quarters.  You've admitted again and again that they need to be expanded.  We have come to the firm conclusion that it's time to do so, right away.  We, after all, are seeking to become prophets, no mean profession, we deserve far better.  It is your responsibility to provide acceptable living quarters for us and to do so immediately."  But instead, they clearly identified the problem, cramped quarters and go on to offer a solution, one that features their own hard, volunteer labor.

The spokesmen and his fellow students wait with baited breath for the response and with good reason.  You see, there may be more behind these words than an apparent and innocent request for larger quarters.     One could see buried beneath these polite syllables some dissatisfaction with Dean Elisha's close supervision.  Maybe what they are really asking is this..."We're tired of this crowded dorm life and especially of living under your thumb.  The quarters are cramped, the freedom too constrained.  We'd like to move a little way away and build our own apartments.  We'd like to move out of the dorm and into the village.  Dean Elisha listens to the proposal, measures, perhaps the motives behind it and responds, "Do it.  Do so."

They invite Elisha to go along and with permission granted and prophet in tow, the project begins immediately.  They head down to the Jordan and start cutting down trees.  In the first rush of excitement the scholars are working away, each hewing a different tree.  All are working hard trying to impress each other and Prophet Elisha.  The chips are flying, no one has yet yelled "timber", but one or two trees are beginning to creek and groan and then it happens.  One of the scholars takes a full back swing and gives the blow everything he has, and when ax meets tree, he hears a crack.  Thinking it to be the tree and not knowing that the snap is from his now broken ax handle, he takes another quick back swing to finish the tree off.  And suddenly the weight on the end of the handle is gone and he looks back just in time to the ax head splash into Jordan's depths and mud.  He cries as one burdened with student loans, "Alas, Master, it was borrowed!"  It is not a matter of a quick commute, you see, to Home Depot to purchase an inexpensive replacement.  Ax heads are rare and the student despairs at having to add the ax head to his indebtedness.  And then the man of God says, "Where did it fall?"  And he showed him the place.  He, Prophet Elisha, cut off a stick, threw it in there and made the iron float.    He said, "Pick it up."  So he reached out his hand and took it. 

It seems a trite little story perhaps and yet it survives down through the ages.  And with a hand full of similar stories about the School of the Prophets, plays a central role in a much later era, in inspiring a worldwide educational system.  It would not be claiming too much, I think, to say that scores of Seventh day Adventist colleges and universities, and thousands of elementary and secondary schools, serving nearly one and a half million students, are rooted in this story.  Trite, though it may seem, there is much to admire and emulate here, apart from the deforestation.  The students are an activist group, identifying problems, offering solutions, and working hard to bring those solutions about.  Elisha provides a great example for teachers and administrators.  He listens to the student proposal and solution and readily approves it.  And when they invite him to become personally involved, he accepts the invitation.  And note this, the students and the faculty are in close contact.  Mentoring of students is natural in this setting; they live under the same roof, eat the same food, share the same work, the students watch the way prophet Elisha deals with the issues of life and ministry.  He models and he mentors and the centuries have hardly made the point passť. 

President Bridges summarizes the 1999 National Research Counsel report "How People Learn" this way, "The most effective learning occurs when instructions engage and become aware of their students skills, preconceptions and beliefs and then incorporate their awareness into teaching practices".  Elisha, I would argue, knew that a long time ago.  It was a central element of the pedagogue of the school's of the Prophets.  And don't miss this feature of the story.  In the midst of the hard scrabble of their everyday life, they experience the miraculous.  At the moment of their greatest need comes an in breaking of God's presence.    In the midst of cramped quarters, in the midst of a stalled building project, comes the grace-filled revelation - God is with us. God is in this place. 

I tell you today, I am honored; we are honored, to serve at this school, a successor, if you will, to the Schools of the Prophets. 

Story number two happens millennia later in the little town of Mead, Washington.  Tragically, in 1933, the father of six boys, most still in their teens, dies.  The boys, casting about to make a living, start a roofing business.  One day, a few years later, one of those six brothers falls off a roof and breaks an arm.  His older brother, Jule, the only Seventh-day Adventist in the group, takes him in during his convalesces.  A young, beautiful, Adventist woman, Blanche, is working as house help there and tends to little brother, Kenny.  Apparently the wounded brother likes the care.  He falls in love with Blanche who shares her Adventist faith with him.  One day, playing saxophone in his dance band, he hears the call to ministry and a stint as a WWII army medic, intervening, he enrolls in the fall of1946.  Half of the institution's life ago at a place called Walla Walla College, to pursue that calling.  He could not afford to be here, but Uncle Sam helped.  And so did Uncle Jule, Uncle Ed, Uncle Harry, Uncle Mac and Uncle Warren.  His five brothers paid his way and his wife, Blanche does the rest.  He graduates in 1950, the first member of his family to graduate from college.  In the 35 years of life that I shared with that father of mine, he invariably spoke in glowing, reverential tones about his experiences at Walla Walla College.  He had an endless mental file of stories from his youth years here.  One's he would trod out with some irregularity.  As you listened to these stories, you could tell that he loved this place.  For him, it was a sacred place where God's presences invaded his life.  Where he sat in awe at the feet of Spirit-inspired teachers.  When he spoke the names of his professors, and especially Dr. Richard Livkey, you could hear the profound esteem he had for them.  Walla Walla College was for him and is for us, a place where we experience the blessing and guidance of God, mediated to us through some of his treasured.  We, each, have such stories.  Our history as an institution is full of them.  In each such story, echo's that grace-filled message; the presence of the Lord is in this place.  I am honored to serve at my father's school.     

The third story is by far, the most ancient of the three and yet, through the eye of faith, the most contemporary. 

In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being.   What has come into being in Him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us.  And we have seen His glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.

The story of Jesus, I would remind you, is the story of a teacher and His students.  It is a story about modeling and mentoring.  It is a story about teaching and being taught and learning to teach. It is surely a story about Christian education, as those pupils and that Teacher, hike that dusty way around Galilee and Samaria and Judea, an onlooker might have judged it to be pretty ordinary, pretty common.  An itinerant Teacher leading a small band of pupils.  But those disciples and millions of people of faith after them have come to recognize the presence of God in that story.  Yes, in their own stories.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen His glory.  The glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

The true measure of an institution is not it's endowments, it's buildings, it's accreditations, the size of it's student body or the number of it's graduates, prestigious academic reputation, it's ratings in U.S. News and World Report, the number of active student organizations, or the qualifications and global recognition of it's faculty.  All these are important, but non represent the essential measure of the institution, the real measure of an institution lies in the character and grit of its students and the service of its graduates.  What mark do they make in the world?  Is the world a better place because they walk its streets, lead its boardrooms, minister in its hospital rooms, teach in its school, preach in its churches, argue cases in its courtrooms, perform faithfully the task of its social workers in its communities, serve as its engineers and in its laboratories and perhaps, most important of all, faithful in the way they live their authentic, Christian lives in their own home circles.  In the midst of their successes and failures, do they live authentic, accountable, Christian lives?  Is the presence of God made manifest in them?  Is the incarnation of Jesus grasped afresh by the way they craft their lives?  Do they personify the institution's mission "Excellence in thought, generosity in service, beauty in expression, faith in God"?  The greatest gift you, future graduates, can give your alma mater, and we trust you will give many, is to live selfless lives that exhibit just those qualities. 

Now I am neither a prophet nor the son of one but I would like to offer five, make that four, daring prophecies about this place.  Elements of the bold vision for its future.  And just to ensure that I am not alone, I am going to ask the Vice Presidents of Walla Walla College to stand with me.  This is a team effort. 

Walla Walla University, and you'll note the change of language, will continue to treasure and explore its past values on which the institution was founded, seeking and finding guiding principles and ideas there that remain insightful and formative as we confront the changing landscape of a very different era.  Walla Walla University will practice careful stewardship, tending with care the resources offered to it's keeping, in service to its God-ordained mission to offer excellent education.

Walla Walla University will take seriously the central issues of the character, integrity and faith of its students.  We will hone our skills in faith, nurture spiritual formation and discipleship.  It will become known that if you seek a campus that takes such matters seriously and yet, with creativity and joy, Walla Walla University is the place to be.

Walla Walla University will be known by the through and excellent training, stalwart character, sterling integrity, and generosity of service in its graduates.  And that, my friends, is a bold vision.

Walla Walla University will steadfastly resist becoming an end in itself.  It will seek to give itself in ministry to its students and to this world of ours.  You may recall the words "Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for His children".  I believe the same to be true of institutions.  However bold our vision, we can never match the cosmic proportions of God's dreams for this place.  And so, whatever our visions and dreams, we must be alert to the in-breaking presence of God.  This is, after all, His school.  We should not be surprised when He shows up to lay claim to it. 

Amen.

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Last update on July 7, 2010