Dr. Liddell's 2020 Commencement Address:
Years ago, my husband, Scott, and I made an unexpected journey. One of our college students from the college ministry in our church was serving overseas, in Siberia. She was more than halfway through her two-year commitment, and our church decided to send us to encourage her. It was arranged for us to go for approximately two weeks during Christmas break. We researched the weather, the people groups in the area, and other items of interest. We also dialogued with her briefly, and one piece of her advice that I remember was: “If your hands and feet get cold, you will be cold.” With that in mind, we purchased our supplies and we packed up the gifts and provisions that had been entrusted to us to give to our young friend.
We departed a few days before Christmas. We employed a tried and true traveler’s trick—we were wearing as many articles of clothing as possible. Snow boots, winter jackets, multiple layers. Our backpacks were stuffed with our gear for the two weeks. As for our luggage, we were carting the maximum weight permitted—280 pounds of gifts! So, we left Spokane and headed for Siberia, where we fellowshipped with and ministered to our friend.
As is common with such journeys, those experiences remain with us to this day. Some of the memories are merely humorous. Other aspects of the journey were opportunities for the reality of our faith to be lived out. God used this journey to alter our understanding of Him, His Word, the world, and even ourselves.
Throughout human history, God has been using travels, journeys, road trips, migrations, and moves to transform the lives of people, particularly His people. Let me recall to our remembrance just a few from Scripture. In the Old Testament, He led His people. Most notably, He led the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land. Their travel itinerary was dictated by God Himself. He also directed the movements of His prophets. God provided a clear address to Elijah when he directed him to the widow’s home (1 Kings 17:9). Then, in establishing the rhythms of His people, He outlined a three-times per year pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship Him for the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Passover, and Booths. God said who should go on these trips. In recent preaching on the Psalms of Ascent, two of my pastors noted that God even provided a playlist, a mixtape for the journey (Psalms 120-134)!
In the New Testament, the theme of journeys continues to be a part of experiencing and knowing God. Jesus tells us that He did the will of the Father. He did not act, move, or walk, without the Father’s direction (John 5:19). As one example, in John 4, Jesus is traveling from the region of Judea to Galilee. As a part of this travel, we know that He intentionally goes through the region of Samaria. Physically weary, He rests at a well, and He encounters a woman. In addition, the physician and historian Luke records the life of the early church in Acts. The missionary journeys of Paul and his compatriots are of particular interest. We know the cities they visited, the people on the trips, the works of God, and sometimes a brief narrative. God was at work in the midst of the journeys, and He used these journeys for His glory.
As we look to the academic year ahead, we have a journey, a trek in front of us. As you have all been students of some sort prior to this week, many parts of this journey will feel familiar and comfortable. However, there will be other aspects that are clearly different. I want to highlight and comment on two parts of the journey I would like you to be aware of as we walk together.
First, every journey has a starting place and a destination. Let me name our starting place. We are in the Fall 2020 academic semester. We have 15 weeks of instruction together ahead of us, and some official days off. Some of you are starting your first year, your second semester, or even your fifth term. For some of you, this is your final year, and you are beginning the last part of this endeavor. For Great Northern University, our starting place is the beginning of our third year as an institution. We believe that God has brought us here to this place. We affirm to one another that we are in this together. He has not made a mistake; we are here according to His divine plan and work. We start together.
Let me name our destination. Ultimately, we long to be in the presence of our God. Although we seek to live for Christ, we know that being with Him is far better (Phil. 1:21). We are a heavenly people; sojourners seeking an unshakable kingdom (Heb. 11:28). We are a people who are in this world, but we do not belong to this world, because of the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 17). He, God Himself, is our ultimate destination.
In this part of the journey I want you to know our hope. Great Northern University exists to educate individuals to engage and transform the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are asking God to use Great Northern to work through you, to see His kingdom come here in Spokane, in North Idaho, in the Northwest, and in the world as it is in heaven. We want churches in our area to be strengthened because you have been built up in your faith through your time here. We want your faith to be radically grown and your trust in our God bolstered, so that your lives, your words, and your actions are used by the Holy Spirit to draw others to Himself. We want more than you could ask or imagine for your precious lives.
As we are asking God to exalt Himself in our city and in our region, this cry may seem overwhelming to you. You may be saying: “Wendy, this is too much today.” Okay, let’s just name the next parts of the trail.
First, we want you to finish this semester. Trail marker #1, by mid-December: complete what has been set before you in your syllabi. By December 11, you should have turned in every paper, every assignment, and closed your books.
Just as in every journey, in the semester ahead, we anticipate some detours and delays. I believe that you will learn just as much from these moments as you do from your formal assessments. Let me share an example.
One night, when I was still a student, as Scott and I were leaving home near the end of the semester, I received an email from my professor. She was fairly curt; she essentially told me of her displeasure with my major paper—the one that would anchor my entire grade for the course. She asked why I had turned in a “rough draft.” I remember emotion washing over me as I realized my mistake. I had not been careful or thorough in submitting my paper. I had inadvertently submitted a draft that was nowhere near the final product. I sat on the floor and cried with heaving sobs. Yet, I had a choice to make: I needed to own my mistake and accept the consequences of my actions. This thought process took about an hour. Later that night, I responded to her and admitted my error. In His grace, God used that experience to call me to greater care with my actions and engagements. An unhurriedness. A thoroughness that I had not yet cultivated. A greater faithfulness to the responsibilities He placed in my hands.
In the section of your journey represented by this semester, finish the course, and welcome all of the lessons from your travels.
Second, we want you to finish your program of study, whether a bachelor’s degree, or a certificate program. While we hope you will be a lifelong learner, we want to celebrate with you as you walk across the stage and receive your diploma or certificate. A degree is, and should be, the end goal of your undergraduate education. Do not lose sight of this goal.
Completing this milestone on your journey requires perseverance—one semester after another. I would encourage you to ask a senior for their advice on finishing. I anticipate that they will reference nothing more basic and profound than simply showing up. However, these basic lessons in finishing will reap dividends throughout your life.
You need a goal to know where you are going; and, a goal focuses your attention. I want to describe one of our goals that you are a part of by just being here. Nearly three years ago, the Lord prompted many of your professors to continue the work of providing biblically based, university-level education, by Christians, for Christians. God individually asked us to show up, to work hard, and to trust Him with the outcome. Our goal, then, was to start a new, Christian university that our children, our grandchildren, and you and your children could attend.
In one of our first meetings, in early November of 2017, we made a list of everything that needed to be done to start an institution of higher education. This list included: finding board members (at least five); filing paperwork with the state to incorporate as a business; filing paperwork to be a non-profit organization; creating guiding documents like bylaws; writing handbooks such as your academic catalog, employee and faculty handbooks; securing space to meet; and applying with the State of Washington to open as a university. We also needed to understand accreditation.
By Thanksgiving of 2017, we believed that God was prompting this goal, and we decided to continue the journey. Assignments were made to different people and committees. Weekly evening meetings were established. By January of 2018, we had an official business. In August of that year, less than a year from our first idea of the journey ahead, Great Northern University opened.
God had invited us to continue His work, to start a new business, to launch a university, to step out in faith, to start the journey… and none of us would tell you that this took place during an easy, unhurried, resource-rich, and pleasant season. Rather, our first steps were taken amidst a stressful deluge of life changes for the whole group. This work began the day our former employer, a college, unexpectedly announced that it would close at the end of the school year. It began in the midst of questions about how to provide for our families, since we would have to find new jobs. It occurred while trying to care for beloved students like yourselves who were making the unexpected decision of where to continue their education. For me, a few months earlier, I had declared that year would be a Sabbath year after 8 years of doctoral coursework. And so, until June of 2018, I had a full-time job that I wanted to be faithful to fulfill; yet, for those eight months of overlapping commitments, my evenings, weekends, and vacations were devoted to the goal of starting Great Northern University.
The invitation to start was there. Work was required to finish the project, and the work was not easy. By God’s grace, the university was started and opened, and you, our students, are the fruit of that effort. Our goal was to have students back in our classrooms; and here you are.
When I think about your journey ahead this semester, my word to you is this: set your destination now. Say to yourself, “I will finish this semester. I will finish this year. I will finish my degree.” Decide now. Do not be deterred. Do not be discouraged. Keep the goal in mind. He who has called you is faithful. He will finish the work.
Not only does a journey have a starting point and a destination. Almost every journey seems to include fellow sojourners, people who are with you. Jesus walked with people; Paul had others who ministered with him. We travel best together.
God has been intentional in whom He has placed around you. You already have people in your lives who are a part of this next stage. Siblings. Friends. Mentors and pastors. You also have the people who surround you here.
I am going to ask you to engage with your fellow travelers at Great Northern University. I ask you to invite one another. I ask you to set up patterns that encourage others. In the early days of the colonial colleges, they had dinner groups, because cafeterias did not exist. I ask you to invite people for dinner each week. Eat lunch in one place and invite others to join you. Take someone to coffee. Ask someone how you can pray for them. Invite them to your home, your church, or to go camping. Get a season pass at the local ski resort. At least once a week this semester, can you reach out to someone new?
We are at the starting line. We have at least one destination ahead. People are around us. The road ahead will have struggles. However, there will be outstanding vistas and incredible moments. Together, we can complete this section of your journey. We can reach our destination. And, if you give yourself to it, give your steps to the Lord; if you accept His invitation to take this journey, and walk with purpose and perseverance, you will be transformed.
Wendy Liddell, Ph.D.