Spring 2024 Convocation Address
As Truett Seminary welcomed the spring semester, Dean Todd D. Still opened the first chapel of the year with a Convocation message entitled “One Thing” (Matthew 6:19-24, 33-34; Philippians 3:7-14).
Amid what we now call the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), the first of five extended discourses by Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus enjoins his disciples (note Matt 5:1) not to “store up treasures in heaven where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (6:19). Instead, he admonishes them to “store up for [themselves] treasures in heaven, where neither moths nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal” (6:20).
Jesus continues his teaching by declaring, “No one can serve two masters” simultaneously (6:24). Lesser gods—whether money or something other—become greater than they otherwise would be when we enthrone them. Thus, the question becomes to whom or to what are we devoted and around what or whom will we orient our lives, “for where [our] treasure is, there will [our] heart[s] be also” (6:21).
Were we to see and to be well (6:22-23), then we would do that which Jesus calls us to do, namely, to “seek first [or to strive first for] the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” knowing that Jesus not only “gets us” but also that “God’s got this” (6:33). As Hebrews 11:6 puts it, God rewards those who earnestly seek him. Jesus teaches us to place tenacious trust and forbearing faith in a faithful, trustworthy God.
In turning to Philippians 3, we discover a Christ-follower, Paul, who has himself turned. He had once placed his confidence in his pedigree and achievements, which, as it happens, by his own admission and estimation, were considerable. He came to a place, however, where he counted all such gains, impressive though they were, to be loss, offscouring, rubbish, even dung, for the sake of Christ and knowing, gaining, and being found in him. Paul’s will and his wants were transformed. Second Corinthians 5:17 (“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have passed away, behold the new things have come.”) is partly autobiographical.
After his encounter with the Risen Jesus en route to Damascus, Paul wanted to know Christ Jesus, to whom he refers as “my Lord.” He did not fancy himself as having yet crossed the proverbial finish line or as having completed the goal of being fully formed into Jesus’ crucified and resurrected image and likeness. Rather, he pressed on like a runner in training toward the prize of the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He longed to take hold of the One who had taken hold of him, to grasp the One who had grasped him, to make his own the One who had made him his own.
It was Soren Kierkegaard, was it not, who maintained that “purity in heart is to will one thing.” Along such lines, Paul was as pure as the driven snow. The apostle puts it this way in Philippians 3:13-14: “But one thing (hen de) I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus calls us to “seek first the kingdom of God,” that is, to pursue the rule and realm of God made manifest in Jesus’ person, mission, and instruction. In Philippians 3, we are encouraged to emulate Paul and other Christ-followers who had fixed their focus and set their sights on King Jesus.
This morning, near the beginning of a new year and at the beginning of the spring 2024 semester, we are circulating in hard copy for the first time our school’s new strategic plan, which we have tagged OneTruett. This plan, which is in anticipation of and will be executed in concert with our university’s new strategic plan, which will be named and revealed later this spring, will serve as a roadmap for our Seminary over the course of the next five or so years.
OneTruett, I trust, will be far more than meets the eye. This modest, two-page document has been nearly two years in the making and has been shaped and sharpened by substantive, insightful feedback from Truett faculty, staff, students, alumni, advocates, and friends, as well as by a third-party creative partner called Polymath.
Mercifully, I will resist the temptation to read or even to reflect fully on OneTruett. In short and in sum, this strategic plan revolves around five key pillars and five strategic priorities, which are, in turn, undergirded by five core commitments. Who is Truett, one might ask? Truett is an “orthodox, evangelical, multi-denominational school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a R1 Christian university,” one might answer, as we do in our statement of identity. Given that I have recently reflected at some length upon this statement in another Convocation Address, I will not seek to do so here.
Animating our densely and intentionally described identity, as well as the Seminary’s mission and vision, are five core commitments that we have pursued and by God’s good grace will continue to pursue with loyal intentionality and an eye toward excellence, specifically, rigorous academic instruction, intentional spiritual formation, caring community, intellectual curiosity (and hopefully humility), and Christian leadership and service.
In addition to these five foundational commitments, OneTruett identifies and articulates five key pillars that focus and buttress the plan. These are as follows: relationships, relevance, being an R1 seminary, resilience, and reinforcement. The succinct statements under each of the five pillars offer a necessary explanation of each item.
With respect to five strategic priorities for the next five or so years, they are as follows:
- Embrace more fully our agreed-upon identity, mission, and vision;
- Focus efforts and streamline systems;
- Raise additional student scholarships and further undergird fledgling programs;
- Increase student support and retention; and
- Hire and equip for the future.
As with the five pillars, the five strategic priorities are partially unpacked in the document itself. That being said, our hope in framing OneTruett was for it to be directive but not exhaustive, to chart out our future course but not seek to identify every possibility or to anticipate any eventuality.
Lest we lose the forest for the trees, allow me to speak to the title and subtitle of our strategic plan on the one hand and that which undergirds it one the other. Like any number of you, I use Apple products. I have an iMac, a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone. I do not have the latest and the greatest Apple devices, but they are more than serviceable, until, of course, they are not.
If Apple is anything, they are market savvy. In the spring and summer of 2022, as we began to work in earnest on what would become our present strategic plan, I received an email from Apple inviting me to subscribe to a bundle of services they were calling Apple One. Around that time, it occurred to me that OneTruett might well capture what we were seeking to accomplish in and through this iteration of strategic planning. I shared the suggestion with Beth Ann Hargis, who skillfully and artfully manages Truett’s media and communications, and she thought that it worked. So, we began to test drive the idea, and it was favorably received. Shakespeare’s question of what is in a name may well pertain, but that is how the name OneTruett came to be.
In selecting this title for the plan, we were seeking to signal that it is we collectively who constitute Truett Seminary. Everyone in the community matters. Whether a student or alumnus; a faculty or staff member; a master’s student, doctoral student, or certificate student studying in Waco, Houston, San Antonio, or online; a donor, prayer partner, or supportive friend, we are Truett. “And blessed be this tie that binds.”
Initially, the strategic plan’s subtitle was “Onward and Upward Toward 2027.” In response to an invitation to offer substantive feedback to both the contents and the wording of the strategic plan, however, Dr. Scott M. Gibson suggested that we might subtitle the document “Striving Together Toward the Upward Call.” Alluding as it does to Philippians 1:27 and 3:14, his proposal quickly secured my unalloyed support and now serves as the strategic plan’s subtitle.
If “OneTruett” conveys the unity we would like to experience and enjoy as a multifaceted, variegated seminary community, “Striving Together Toward the Upward Call” captures both the underlying and overarching aim of our school in general and this plan in particular. Like the apostle, we want to know Christ and to make him known. Furthermore, in keeping with our Lord’s command, we want to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
A question that I would like for us to consider together as I begin to move toward the conclusion of this convocation address is this: How might we more fully seek the kingdom of God and know the Person of Christ? How might Christ and the things of Christ more fully be our “one thing.” In response to this foundational question, let us return to the biblical texts which Dr. Reed read and with which we began.
If we are going to pursue the Kingdom of and the righteousness of God, then we will increasingly have to prioritize the eternal and increasingly come to recognize that our propensity toward worry may well be a form of practical atheism. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus commands his disciples not to worry no less than three times. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus says (6:25). “Do not worry” about the staff and stuff of life like those who do not know God, Jesus declares (6:31). “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus insists (6:34).
Look at the birds, and consider the flowers, Jesus instructs (6:26, 28). Although birds are not farmers any more than flowers are day laborers, both fair just fine under God’s providential hand and plan. Christ calls we who lack the faith of a mustard seed to trust a gracious heavenly Father who values us and knows our needs (note 6:26, 32). “Said the robin to the sparrow, ‘I should really like to know why these anxious human beings rush about and worry so.’ Said the sparrow to the robin, ‘I guess that it must be that they have no heavenly Father such as cares for you and me.’”
In the final chapel of the Fall 2023 semester, Alison Gerber reminded us of what Jesus said to Martha and by way of extension to other harried and hurried disciples: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only a few things are needed—or indeed only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). As Jim Elliott once aptly put it, “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
I find it easier to not be anxious in principle than in practice. For example, this past Sunday I took an Uber from downtown DC to Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, VA so that I might be worship with that fellowship. Upon arriving at the church, I placed my carry on, brief case, coat, and scarf in the pastor’s office. After the service had begun, it dawned on me that I did not have my phone with me. I began to worry if I had left it with the Uber driver, who had no need of it. I was disappointed in myself that I was distracted, but I was nonetheless. As it happens, my phone turned out to be in my coat pocket, a perfectly reasonable place for it.
In addition to prioritizing the kingdom and combating hurry and worry, Philippians 3 impresses upon us our need to make more of the crucified and risen Jesus and less of our own status, whether ascribed or achieved. John the Baptizer had the right habit of mind when declaring in John 3:30, “He must become greater; I must become less.” The more that seeking and serving Christ becomes our “one thing,” the more likely it is that OneTruett, not to mention our own lives and ministries, will have wings.
Those who know me also know that I love church hymnody. In addition to the two hymns that we have already sung and the one in which Dr. Brewer will soon lead us, please suffer me the lyrics of one other, which I believe summarize well what I have been seeking to say today.
More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry my heart shall raise;
This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
It is sometimes suggested in my hearing that a seminary is a place where a would-be minister’s faith goes to die. If funny, equating in so many words seminary with cemetery, it is also tantamount to tragedy. May it not be so among us!
Is seminary meant to be challenging and at times unsettling? Absolutely. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined faith is not worth having. Having said that, our goal here is not to deconstruct in order to reconstruct. We do not exist to cultivate and curate sophisticated unbelief. Ours is not a hermeneutic of suspicion aimed to efface faith. Rather, as stated in our mission and vision, our aim is to “equip God-called men and women for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” In so doing, our intention is to prepare thoughtful, faithful ministers for a twenty-first-century church and world.
Occasionally, Truett graduates will reach out to me, typically by email, to express their appreciation for our school. I am always heartened by such communication. Near the outset of last semester, a recent alumna sent me a Saturday email. In her expansive and effusive email, one statement in particular captured my attention. She expressed her belief that Truett Seminary follows the Jesus way and indicated that she had grown immeasurably in her relationship with Jesus during her time at Truett. May her experience be our experience this semester, and may OneTruett guide us, if imperfectly, toward pursuing “one thing” more and more. Let us set aside lesser things for greater gains. Amen.