Students, distinguished faculty, staff colleagues, parents and friends of Gordon; alumni of Gordon College, Gordon Divinity School and Barrington College; Judge Smith; Dr. Tibbles; trustees; Dr. Hatch; Dr. Briggs; Dr. Schweiger; family and special guests here and watching at home: thank you. It is indeed an honor to formally stand before you today and be charged with serving as the ninth president of Gordon College. In accepting this charge, I do so with a deep conviction that God has called me, along with Jen and our family to this work.
So, it is fitting that I also extend my love and affection to my wife, Jennifer, and my son and daughters: Elizabeth, Jack, Bekah (who just decided to attend Gordon College in the fall!), Natalie, Anne and Evie. Thank you for your sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Thank you for your support and love in our pursuit of this calling. And thank you for moving to New England!
I would like to acknowledge special guests with us today who have helped to steward the grand legacy of Gordon College. Mark Ferrin, grandson of former Barrington College President Howard Ferrin, as well as family members of the late Dick Gross, Gordon’s sixth president. Jan Carlberg, wife of the late Jud Carlberg, Gordon’s seventh president, is not able to join us today. But let’s also welcome Gordon’s eighth president, Dr. Michael Lindsay, and Rebecca Lindsay back to campus. Thank you all for your family’s legacy of service to Gordon College.
For the past few months, I have been introduced as a “native Hoosier.” You may have questions about what exactly that means. There are many legends that you learn in Indiana history class, but most of them are made up, and no one agrees on the meaning of the word. Most Bostonians know one person from Indiana: Larry Bird. That is a good start but may be a tough model to live up to. Being from the Midwest means that I have to earn respect from the locals. Typically, proud New Englanders just look at me with curiosity—or perhaps pity?—and ask, “Oh, so you’re from the Midwest . . . are you going to be ok?”
Our family has been richly blessed in the transition to Gordon and the North Shore. Many of you have extended hospitality and greeted us warmly. Don’t worry; I won’t call you out for your kindness lest you lose your “wicked smaht” credibility as New Englanders. There is a particular pride in being from New England. It commands respect for hard work and straight talk. Gordon College reflects that in our approach to serious learning and deep Christian faith.
Strength for Today
Our theme today is “Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow.” Those words come from “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which is a favorite hymn for Jen and me.
About 100 years ago, two ministers who barely knew one another each found himself forced into retirement from active preaching due to physical illness. Their long-distance collaboration of words and music brought “Great is Thy Faithfulness” to the world in 1923, but it was not until the hard times of the Great Depression that the hymn grew in popularity.
The words of Lamentations 3 that my children just read a few moments ago tell some of the story that inspired the hymn. Lamentations was authored by Jeremiah, and it expresses deep despair: emotional and physical anguish. Today we are in times of great challenge for most colleges and universities. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many obstacles to higher education, which was already experiencing disruption. We live in an age of intellectual isolation when a free exchange of ideas is smothered beneath a covering of incivility and judgementalism. A confused institutional identity and lack of academic vision has led to enrollment decline across higher education. In the midst of these pressures, the refrain “Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow” represents the story of Gordon College and points to our direction for the future. Our strength for today is the result of God’s faithfulness to Gordon over 133 years.
We see God’s faithfulness when the pastor of the Clarendon Street Baptist Church started a training school for those who were rejected by the elite universities because they were—in the eyes of most colleges—too poor, too old, the “wrong race,” the “wrong sex,” or because they lacked an elite educational and social background. A. J. Gordon was the product of the best schools in New England. He was well-known to the scholarly community as an exemplary theologian and leader. Yet his burden and calling were to live out the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission, ensuring that students who needed training for world service would have access to a Christ-centered education. This approach to education—welcoming anyone who desired to train for service to the needs of the world—was well ahead of most colleges at the time.
We see God’s faithfulness when the College outgrew the Clarendon Street Baptist Church and moved to the Boston Fenway in 1917, just a couple of years before Babe Ruth left town for . . . some other team. During this time, Gordon grew in strength as Isabel Wood served as dean of the faculty, a rare appointment for a woman in the early 20thcentury. She is credited with maintaining a curriculum focused on Christian faith but adding courses in literature and rhetoric. In the 1920s and ’30s, an extraordinary number of Baptist ministers in Boston were graduates of Gordon, and Gordon alumni were serving on every continent on the globe except for Antarctica. (We did not have a major in marine biology yet; that came with our merger with Barrington College.) Gordon College students made a difference in Boston and the world by serving the mission, preparing for ministry while practicing personal Christian piety and self-sacrifice.
As the post-war period brought a new spiritual awakening to the United States and the world, we see God’s faithfulness as Gordon rose to the center of the new evangelical movement and became a leader among Christian colleges in forming a new liberal arts curriculum that would widen its mission. A move to the Wenham campus provided the location for a true learning environment for a world-class liberal arts college.
We see God’s faithfulness when Barrington College’s own rich legacy of training for ministry was grafted into the Gordon story in the 1980s as each of these colleges joined forces to continue their work of preparing young people for Christian service to the world.
Through each of these chapters of God’s faithfulness in New England and the world, Gordon College students served with a spiritual fervor and desire to live out the Christian gospel with care and concern for the hurting and broken.
Over the past few months, I have invested many hours listening to testimonies of God’s faithfulness through Gordon College. I have heard students, faculty, staff and alumni testify to how they were called to serve here and what brings them joy in their work. I spent the month of March traveling to alumni events around the country, meeting hundreds of our graduates to hear their words of encouragement, gratitude and advice for Gordon. In hundreds of conversations, common themes emerged that demonstrate God’s faithfulness in the past, demonstrating our strength for today. So many students and alumni recalled a professor, staff member—perhaps a coach—who took time to encourage and challenge them. Alumni and current students alike give joyful thanks for a sincere Christian faith, bold learning experiences with our faculty and staff, and a heart joined with the mind for service to the world. We are a learning community centered around Christ—and that commitment has been our strength for today.
Bright Hope for Tomorrow
Our bright hope for tomorrow comes with a clearer recognition and confident assertion of our identity, evident in three areas of strength where Gordon College’s unique approach has demonstrated resilience to faithfully carry out our mission in response to the gospel. Staying on course for the future will require courage but fulfills our mission with hope for the Gordon College of tomorrow.
There is bright hope for tomorrow because Gordon College will continue a legacy of faith that is unwavering and enduring in its commitment to Jesus Christ while avoiding the temptation of dogmatic judgementalism that repels people from the gospel. Second Corinthians 2 describes God’s people as “the aroma of Christ” that attracts others to a relationship with Jesus. This is a beautiful description of a triumphal procession in celebration of the great news of Christ’s victory over sin as the Spirit transforms us as his witness.
In an era when nuanced, respectful dialogue is waning, it requires great courage to resist the immediate self-gratification of cultural combat. Judgementalism derails the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission. But neither can we be afraid to speak the truth. Incivility often takes the form of a closed mind emptied in a loud manner. But there is another incivility that disconnects altogether from engaging with the pursuit of truth, quietly withdrawing from any care or concern for the world in need. Both hostility and indifference are forms of incivility that corrupt our public witness and prevent us from pursuing shalom. The way of bright hope requires courage, open hands and hearts, speaking the truth in love as directed in Ephesians 4 so that we “will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Gordon College was established as a place defined by the commands of Jesus. In Matthew 22, the Greatest Commandment, you will recall, an expert academician—a Pharisee—asked Jesus:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
This is more than the “golden rule.” Our love for our neighbor comes alongside our responsibility to surrender our whole person to Jesus Christ in love. And the Great Commission compels us to spread the amazing news of victory over death and bondage to sin to empower us to live in obedience and redemption. This is the bright hope for the future: redemption and the promise of all things made new. This is the expectant hope of the gospel that is at the center of our mission at Gordon College.
Gordon’s mission as a Christian liberal arts college is to love Jesus Christ with our heart and soul and mind—our emotion and faith and intellect—in ways that transform the world around us as we “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” And we do so in a global context, seeking to make disciples around the globe as we testify to the power of Jesus Christ, guiding our passion for research and discovery.
How might we use the power of a liberal arts education to engage in loving our neighbor as ourselves?
I believe that the liberal arts, when realized well, propel students to learning marked by insatiable curiosity. In its best form, in addition to preparing for a job and career, college learning guides whole-person development that becomes transformational for the community and the world. As we continue toward purposeful transformation in our learning community, we will integrate faith, learning and living; we will cultivate imagination with a disposition of hope and service; and we will inspire creative contribution to God’s purposes. We will do so in a spirit of shalom that grants dignity to all people and looks past the prejudice and discrimination of our age. This has been our strength and will continue to provide hope as our legacy of deep commitment to Jesus Christ guides us and God’s faithfulness sustains us.
Our second bright hope for tomorrow is that we are people who use our talents for a higher purpose, avoiding the temptation of selfish motives. We often describe our mission simply in the words of A. J. Gordon: “Preparing the people of God for the work of God.” The strength of that mission is in its simplicity, but do not assume that fidelity to this mission comes easily. Serving this mission requires a clear understanding of the spiritual as well as the intellectual integrity of our mission. This is a service borne from a desire to yield our gifts to God for his purposes, rather than a desperate need for self-affirmation.
The work of God may be defined more broadly today than in the earliest days of the Boston Missionary Training Institute. Students, your mission field remains the same, as defined by the words of the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Today proclamation of the gospel takes many different forms as you fulfill the calling to surrender your gifts and your motives to God. This act of obedience is countercultural: At Gordon we believe that by serving and giving your gifts for God’s purposes, you will gain a deeper reward of participating in his work of grace in the world. In that surrender we see the strength of Gordon’s mission: students giving their gifts for a higher purpose.
A third bright hope for tomorrow is academic excellence marked by a humble curiosity and drive for discovery. Perhaps the deadliest sin for academic scholars is pride. Arrogance is often the coin of the realm in the ivory towers of academia, as professors project an aura of intellectual superiority that masks a deep insecurity and need for affirmation. A better way is lived out in academic inquiry that respects the text or research and calls students to receive all truth as God’s truth, marked by a passion for learning, a skepticism toward easy answers and a curiosity for greater understanding.
This approach flourishes here because of Gordon’s ongoing worship of God the Creator, our honest and irenic engagement with the people created in his image, and a commitment to love the world that is his creation. We learn to approach the great questions of learning with humility when we seek to echo the Psalmist’s proclamation in Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
2 for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.
3 Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.
With this in mind, Gordon College has historically been defined as a place where earnest inquiry and academic pursuit have been unhindered by anxiety over the potential outcomes of those efforts. We fear no idea, no theory, no question, no scientific discovery because our confidence in God is sure. Students, we need you to be courageous in your learning and your sincere Christian faith—mind and heart joined together. Our world is aching for you to bind up the wounds of the hurting, repair and restore the broken, bring peace where there is conflict, testify to God’s enduring truth and show love to the outcast. And as stewards of the gifts God has given you, we need you to do so with all of your heart, mind and soul. Our confidence in the truth of Scripture propels our learning together and enables us to discern true wisdom.
Our ultimate hope comes through our acceptance of grace and goodness, not greed and self-gratification. My prayer is that every student who enters Gordon College will leave here deeper in their relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the foundation of purposeful transformation and it enables greater intellectual, emotional and professional excellence. And we do this together in a joy-filled learning community.
Gordon College has a rich legacy within global Christianity not only as a participant in the work of God in the world but as a shaper and leader in preparing for this work. In an age marked by deep questions about the role of the Church in the world, Gordon stands ready to lead and participate in defining the future of the global Church. Accomplishing this will form a unique brand of Christian leader who is ready to purposefully transform the world.
The challenge before us is great.
The Gordon of the future will require courage. Courage to resist these temptations and be true to who we know ourselves to be. Courage to pursue these bright hopes for tomorrow: an unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ, a humble surrender of our gifts for God’s service, and academic excellence marked by a humble curiosity and drive for discovery. These will propel Gordon College toward an expectant, bright hope for tomorrow, pursuing our mission while resisting temptations of dogmatic judgementalism, selfishness and arrogance. As we courageously follow this bright hope and fulfill this mission, it is first for our students—but we must also have the integrity to practice these commitments for our staff, faculty and all in our community. The blueprint for the Gordon of the future is not going to be delivered to us from outside experts. The blueprint for the Gordon of the future is right here in this room. And it will require hard work and commitment. Do we have the courage to pursue it together?
Innovation for Gordon College requires creative investment with a simultaneous reassertion of our historic and present foundational commitments: to vibrant Christianity without dogmatic judgmentalism, deep learning without arrogance and service to the world without selfishness. These point to the bright hope for tomorrow. As the people of God, we are familiar with living with such principles held together: justice and mercy, law and grace, speaking the truth in love, the greatest among shall be the last. The omniscient, all-powerful God of the universe kneeling to wash the disciples’ feet hours prior to submitting to torture and a criminal’s death.
Gordon College, the courage we must demonstrate has been there all along. It is strength drawn from the legacy of faith we have witnessed for over 13 decades. This is the courage to serve, to learn and to pursue a deep and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ from a position of humility and sincere obedience in response to the sacrificial love of the Savior. I trust that, like me, this mission energizes you and brings expectant hope for tomorrow. Let us step forward with a great legacy of faith that inspires courage, humility and a confidence in our great God to give us wisdom and strength to live into tomorrow’s bright hope.