Westmont Magazine Heart, Head, and Hands
The Fall 2001 Convocation Address by President Stan Gaede
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before God made anything at all and is supreme over all creation. Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see: kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him. He existed before everything else began, and he holds all creation together. Christ is the head of the church, which is his body. He is the first of all who will rise from the dead, so he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and by him God reconciled everything to himself.” Colossians 1:15-20 (New Living Translation)
I want you to stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking right now — the first day of classes, the person sitting beside you, Fido back home, whatever — and think for a moment about your ideal Christian. What do you imagine the ideal Christian to be like? Now go from the ideal, to the real, and pick someone, anyone — friend, teacher, family member — anyone who comes to mind who comes pretty close to fitting that ideal. This person should be someone you admire, who is absolutely a rock-solid follower of Christ. Someone, perhaps, that you would like to be like, someday. Got it?
Okay, now let me ask you a question: what’s this person like? For example, is this person growing as a human being — a learner at heart who wants to know about other things and other people, as well as more about the Lord they love? Or is this individual not so much a learner as a doer — a person of deeds, a real servant who loves to help others, enabling them to accomplish what needs to be done? Or is this someone who really loves God deeply, unabashedly, with feeling, and with the whole of their heart and soul?
Which is it? Is this person a learner, liver, or a lover? Well, let me take a guess: right now, you’re thinking this is one of the dumber questions you’ve ever heard in your life. Because for most of you, when I asked if this individual was inquisitive and growing, you said, “Yes.” When I asked if the person served others, you said, “Yes.” When I asked if they loved God deeply, you said, “Yes.” You didn’t want to choose between them, because they all sort of fit.
Well there’s a reason for the dumb question — as well as for the fit. We think these qualities ought to go together. In the Bible that’s precisely what we learn, from beginning to end. There’s not a shred of evidence, anywhere in Scripture, that you can choose between being a person of faith, or action, or wisdom. If you love the Lord, you act as if that’s true. One of your first actions is to grow in your understanding about him, and his world, and what he has called you to. Faith without works is dead. Works without faith are meaningless. And a faith not growing in wisdom and understanding is a faith in something other than Jesus Christ.
Now why am I telling you this? Well, as you know, I’m the president of this college. And this is the first chapel of the first year of my presidency. A lot of you are sitting there thinking, “What’s he going to say on this occasion to mark the year — and his presidency?”
What I’m going to say today is exactly what I’ve been saying for the last five years — and what I plan to say as long as the Lord gives me breath. It’s all there in the passage I just read, out of which comes our motto: “Christ preeminent in all things.” Let’s look at it again, this time using the NRSV:
“He [that is Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created — things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
What a fabulous passage. Were you able to spot our motto? Perhaps not, because you won’t find those words precisely. They come out of the King James version. But it’s there, in that second to the last sentence, which says: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have — and this is the phrase — have first place in everything.” The King James words it so “that in all things he might have the preeminence.” Our motto summarize this whole passage, where Paul defines who Christ is, what he has done, and what he is doing now and forever. This is an especially good passage, I think, for a liberal arts college.
As you think about that passage in general and our motto in particular, what strikes you as the most important word (or words)? Take just our motto, for a moment: “Christ preeminent in all things.” Aside from the word Christ, which is obviously the point of the thing, what word do you tend to focus on? Preeminent, right? Christ is preeminent, first place, in everything.
Maybe. But maybe not. In fact, I think it could be a big mistake, given the way we typically think of these terms. In context, preeminence is an understatement. We think it means he’s in first place (as the NRSV puts it), which means that he wins all the time. He’s the first in line, the best, numero uno. But the text clearly means that he’s not just first, he’s all in all; he’s one with God: creator, redeemer, and reconciler of all things.
The point isn’t that Jesus is the brightest kid in class; the class is his. He’s not only the best of us, he is the point of us, our creator and redeemer, our beginning and our end. All things belong to him, were created for him, and find their meaning in him.
Let’s look at the passage again, but this time highlighting the phrase, “all things.”
“He [that is, Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created — things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Striking, isn’t it? This is no modest claim, and no modest fellow. Jesus is not just your best friend, he’s the only true friend you’ve got, and all you will ever need. We follow him not just because he’s the brightest kid on the block, but because in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We believe in him, not just because he is our redeemer from sin, but because in him there is life: abundant life, real life, the only life worth living today and forever.
But here’s the question: if this is true — and we say we believe it as a college — then what does that mean for us this year, or any year, at Westmont? I want to suggest that the first thing it means — the first thing — is that when it comes to following Christ, you can’t choose between your heart, your head, or your hands. Because this Jesus wants them all.
A few days ago, we got a call from Leni and George, some friends in San Diego whom we met when we were students at Westmont. We’ve been close ever since and still made a habit of getting together even when we lived in New England for 20 years. Our children grew up together, and we think of them as family.
Anyway, they called to let us know that George’s mother was just diagnosed with cancer. It’s something we were all a little worried about, since she was experiencing some pain, and there were a few other symptoms as well. A biopsy revealed that it was cancer and in all likelihood had spread to other parts of the body. She’s elderly, and everyone knows this is pretty serious.
But here’s the thing that struck me as we talked with Leni and George on the phone that day, and as we have watched them since the cancer was discovered: they are totally involved in their mom’s situation. They have become eager learners, wanting to know everything they can about the cancer. But they also want to do whatever they can to help their mom, using what they have learned to treat her condition, to ease the pain, and to make her life as comfortable as possible. Right now, for example, they’re living with her, taking care of her, and giving of themselves to her.
Why are they doing this? They love her. She’s a wonderful Christian woman who has been a good mom, and great grandmother. She has been a faithful member of the family, and so they care for her. In this moment of need in her life, they are there and do everything they can to provide love and support.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s exactly what you would expect under such conditions. Who of us would not respond the same way, in the same circumstances?
So, here’s the question: If that’s the case for someone special in your life — a good friend or parent or grandparent — why is that not the case for our Lord? To be blunt, how is it possible for us to say that we love the Lord and not want to know everything we can about him, his world, and how he has created us? How can we possibly learn about his creation — study it, analyze it, and think about — and not take care of it at the same time? How can we not take what we have learned and use it to be better stewards of his creation and to love our neighbor as ourselves — to care for those whom he has placed in our path and created in his image?
If it’s perfectly obvious when your grandmother gets sick that you are to love her with heart and head and hands, how in the world can that not be obvious when it comes to loving our Lord, who created heart and head and hands in the first place?
I see two possibilities. We could be frauds, and our words might be hollow. We say one thing and do another because we don’t believe what we say. We’re pretenders. Or we believe in God because it’s convenient or keeps us out of trouble or helps mask a double life. We want to have our cake and eat it too — to look good and keep up appearances, but live for ourselves at the same time.
That’s possible, it seems to me. We’re sinners, after all. Duplicity comes easily for us. At some level, we are all frauds. But we are also victims in this case, and that brings us to the second possibility: We have bought into a very unbiblical worldview, which we think at times is Christian, but which moves us in quite another direction.
This summer, our family had the chance to spend two weeks in Italy. All seven of us wandered all over Tuscany, Florence, Rome and Venice. It was a first for me, though not for our two older children. In spite of being the last one to Italy, the trip was fabulous. Good weather, beautiful countryside, more pasta than I had ever eaten in my life, and art like you wouldn’t believe. Florence was especially moving to me. But when you combine it with the art in Rome and Venice and every town in between, it takes your breath away.
The thing that hit me is how thoroughly integrated art was with the church during that period of time. Churches were the primary patron of the arts, commissioning the best artists to produce the best art. There were all kinds of problems with this, of course: pride, jealousy, inequity, money poorly spent — all the things that characterize people then, and now, whenever they try to do anything lavishly. But in spite of these problems, art became the primary vehicle for expressing the biblical story. And it was done with such beauty and depth and creativity, that it has inspired Christians, from cultures around the world, ever since. In spite of the significant problems of the church in that age (and there were many), they did something right when they mobilized the very best artists of the time to tell the greatest story of all time.
We don’t do that anymore, do we? Why not? Lots of reasons. The Renaissance itself helped usher in a more literate society, which used written words more than pictures to tell stories. That’s one reason. But another is that we reacted against the abuses in the church, cutting ourselves off from art, as if art were the problem, not only depleting the church of one of its resources, but more importantly, leading Christians to believe for years that art was a waste of time, at best. This great gift, which God has put into the hearts of his people, was ignored or suppressed. The problem with this is not just that talented people were disabled and disengaged from their talent. It was that we, the worshippers, were impoverished in our worship. One of the ways that God put into our hearts, to honor and glorify him, was amputated from the body — expelled.
In the language of Colossians, we forgot about all things: That all things were created by him, and through him, and for him. We’ve been forgetting about it ever since, not just in art, but in literature and philosophy, and in science, as well, when we don’t like the conclusions that some scientists draw. But the problem isn’t the creation God made, nor the discipline needed to study it. And the answer is not to ignore the discipline when we don’t like the conclusions, but to take it on and to study it better, in a way that honors the creator.
The same thing is true in the physical realm as well, whether it’s using our bodies to play soccer, to exercise, to sing or to dance. We’ve gotten some grief over the years about allowing dancing on campus and having a dance minor. And yet, people have been dancing since the dawn of creation; the Bible is loaded with it. That’s how we were created. The problem isn’t dance, it’s how you dance and to what end. Dance well, my friends. That’s the point. Dance to the honor and glory of the One who rhythmically created you. That’s the command.
I have a dream: It is simply that Westmont would be different. Different from the culture around it, for one thing, which has no way of discerning good from evil and is hell bent on confusing the two. But different as well from those who cut themselves off from the good in reaction to abuses of the past.
We embrace the good at Westmont, because we believe in a God who is the author of all that is good and right and true and beautiful. That means there is no dichotomy between doing and thinking, or thinking and feeling, or feeling and anything else. Not only because one implies the other, but because our God created us as feeling, thinking, doing beings. To pit one against the other is to pit God against God. To privilege one over the other, is to privilege one part of creation over another. But there is only one privileged position at this college because there is only one privileged position in all creation, and that is held by our Christ: preeminent in all things. All things. All things.
Which is why Westmont is a liberal arts college. What is a liberal arts college, anyway? How would you define it? Most people can’t, by the way. It’s the longest running tradition in American higher education, and most people don’t have a clue what it is. Our best students want to go to a liberal arts college, but no one knows why, or what it is.
But we do. We’d better, because Westmont is a liberal arts college in fairly classic form. Which means it’s expensive (whenever you hear the word “classic” hold on to your pocketbook). More importantly, it means we take the liberal arts seriously at Westmont. It’s not a phrase about the past at Westmont, but about the present.
What are the liberal arts about, then? Let me give you one word, just to make it easy. Becoming. It’s about becoming the person you were created to be. It’s about growing into the image of your Creator, becoming like him in affections, in knowledge, in character, and in deed. The word “arts” here refers not to the discipline of art per se, but those skills and understandings you will need in your life’s journey. Think of “the art of living,” and you get closer to the meaning. The word “liberal” refers not to an ideology, but to freedom: The freedom that comes from learning the art of living — living rightly and living well — in concert with the One who created you. They are sometimes called the liberating arts, or the freeing arts, because they free you from those things that hinder growth (like ignorance, sloth, sin). They root you instead in a sure foundation, capable of launching you into a lifetime of learning, living, and loving your God as well as your neighbor.
Now you know two things: You know what the liberal arts are. And you know why almost no one else does, in this culture, even at the best liberal arts colleges. Because you can’t get someplace if you don’t know where you’re going, and you can’t become something without knowing what it is you are trying to become. And you certainly can’t reflect your Creator without knowing his Christ and our Redeemer and loving him with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.
We start with Jesus at Westmont, not in spite of our wanting to be the very best liberal arts college, but because of it. There’s no other way to get from where we are to where we ought to be, except through him.
Let me summarize: In whom do we place our trust? Christ, who is preeminent in all things. “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created — things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him.”
What are we? A liberal arts college, which means we are a people in process, becoming the people we were created to be, reflecting in heart and head and hands the image of our Creator. A people, in other words, loving to learn, learning to live, and living to love.
What a high calling, indeed, and what a wonderful place to be so called. Let us
make the most of it, for our sake, but especially for the sake of Christ, our caller, our all in all. Amen.