Have you ever had one of those days? My future daughter-in-law, Erin Moriki, broke her foot a few weeks ago and is in a cast. She asked Ruth and me if we could take her to a special celebration her church was hosting at the Portland State University Pavilion with Francis Chan, and we agreed to do so. After picking her up in Beaverton, we drove up 99W and had a hard time getting the navigation going. It was also raining hard. I turned on Elwert Road and was fidgeting with the windshield wipers when I almost ran into a car coming the opposite direction. Ruth screamed and noted that I should keep my eyes on the road.
A little further along I almost ran into a duck slowly crossing the road, trying to trap unsuspecting motorists – since I’m sure running over a duck in Oregon is a life sentence. At this point I’m thinking, “I need to go back to bed.” We finally arrived in Beaverton, picked Erin up and headed to Portland State. If you’re like me, driving into downtown Portland is not fun for many reasons. One challenge is parking. And in this case, I had to get close to the building because of Erin’s condition. I finally found a way to do so after numerous tries, and I let them off. I then discovered there is no way to turn left and find a way to park near the campus. I was forced to go over the bridge, over 405, and find a path back to downtown.
After 15 minutes of migrating down several one-way streets – I’m just thankful that it was 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning – I made it to the park area near the Oregon Historical Society. I got out of the car and received a text from my wife asking that I stop for coffee. I did so and had to get a little carrier to hold the drinks. I had forgotten my umbrella, so I walked in the rain about three-fourths of a mile with two coffees. I made it to the building and was nearly to their seats when a small child ran ahead of his family, oblivious to his surroundings, as children tend to be. I veered slightly to miss colliding with him and one of the coffees went up in the air, hit me in the chest and made a significant impact on my nice red sweater and blue dress pants before cascading all over the floor. What do you do when that happens? You are in church, so my normal reaction is not possible. I looked at myself, walked to the bathroom and started getting paper towels to clean both myself and the floor. After 15 minutes, I have it in pretty good shape, but I am not. The service has not started, so I sit in the corner for a minute and just wonder, “Why am I here? God, was there a lesson in all of this?” Then Chan began to speak, and it was one of those moments that you hear God say, “Yes, I need you here today.”
It is interesting how experiences during a week begin to connect. As many of you know, we have a leadership program known as the LDI. One of the participants, Matt Dyment, asked me, “As leaders, how will we embrace change and help others to do so?” That is such a difficult question, and it is the same one that Chan addressed with the community on that Sunday. “We are in such a time of change; how should the church continue to be vibrant during this post-Christian era?”
Chan started: “Have you ever thought, we (the church) naturally gravitate to comfort?” The church, he noted, in the first century and today has a tendency to serve itself and rest in the comfort of our relationships, the routines of the religious experience, and the patterns that we want as part of our lives. In the U.S. in particular, he argued that we like to make the church about us. If you’re married, does your conversation after church go something like this? …
“Hey did you like the sermon today? Nah, it didn’t really hit me right. The music, well I didn’t think they chose the right songs and the guitarist, he seemed to be a little off. Let’s try church X next week; I think the experience will be better for us.”
Chan continued, “Don’t you realize that worship is foremost about what God is doing? If you guys show up or not, God will continue to be present in Portland seeking to bring people to himself. That is what he does.”
I began to forget the lost coffee, the lousy parking, my now-sticky sweater and the almost-accidents and thought about the word I was hearing from the Lord that morning – and how it applies to both the church and George Fox University as we prepare students to live in a dramatically changing world for Christ.
The past several weeks, and really the last two years, we have celebrated staff members who had made the mission of George Fox their life’s work: Hank Helsabeck (35 years), Craig Taylor (43 years), Merrill Johnson (37 years), Tom Head (41 years), Beth LaForce (31 years), Byron Shenk (28 years), Craig Johnson (28 years), Alan Kluge (20-plus years), etc. When folks like that retire they remind us of the highest and most valuable things that happen at the university. We have come from an institution that had roughly 500 students 30 years ago to one of the largest private universities in Oregon, with more than 4,100 students. For most of our history we were small – we talked together often in a single room. Even I can remember faculty retreat every fall at Twin Rocks, where we gathered to talk about the coming year and ground our community in Christ.
Things have changed. We are bigger, we have a bigger budget, and we have more buildings and resources. By most measures we have been successful in drawing more students to our mission and helping transform them into people that God will use to advance his church. At a recent meeting where I presented with Rob Westervelt on the success of George Fox, we had a packed crowd. We have done business differently at George Fox over the past seven years, and that has helped differentiate our work in the marketplace. But our competitive advantage has really been our people who have understood that the point of our educational efforts is not to get bigger but to advance our mission.
This past week, listening to former students return to honor two long-serving faculty members, Tom Head and Beth LaForce, it was obvious that there was a common thread to the testimonies. In general, they went something like this: “I had Beth and Tom when I was a student 30 years ago. I know they were excellent teachers, but I do not remember a lot from the classroom experience. What I do remember is the time that they spent with me over dinner, with a cup of coffee, or just sitting in the office talking. They helped me consider what God was doing in my life and gave me an opportunity to consider what God may be preparing me for in the future. They cared about me as a person, and much of who I have become is because of those moments.”
Although much has changed at the university, I was reminded that the most important aspects have not changed. At the end of his celebration Tom got up and, in his manner, graciously reminded the group that what made him most proud of George Fox was that the university continues to excel academically and remains deeply committed to Christ and to the mission-centered transformation of students. Put in another way, the founders of Pacific College would not recognize the campus of today, but they would recognize the mission. Our people continue to align themselves with what they believe God is doing here.
In his message on Sunday, Chan noted that one of the major challenges in the church is the necessity to live out Christ’s call in community. It is hard work, and the first-century churches struggled with the call just as we do. He encouraged the church to “keep focused on what God is doing and align your work with his mission.” It was good to be reminded that we have faculty and staff that ask that question each day and keep us on task and mission.