By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see

By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from Dr. Ben Sells’ remarks at Ouachita’s December 2020 Commencement ceremony, which had been delayed from May 2020 because of the pandemic. See his full, original remarks at obu.edu/stories.

Ouachita is a university that makes paramount a love of God and a love of learning. We aspire to help prepare students to serve the purposes of God in their generation. Therefore, I believe it’s important and timely that we reflect on this question: “How then shall we live, both in the shadow of a pandemic and in the light of eternity?”

From the long span of human experience, we learn that crises, whether global or personal, change and shape our being. We know that the undergraduate college years result in significant personal growth because they coincide with such a formative stage in life. The intersection of students’ college years and COVID-19 makes it very possible that this crisis will have a profound impact on their lives and set their generation apart from all others. 

It’s been said that adversity reveals character. It has for Ouachita. For example:

  • I remember, beginning last March, the faculty and staff, out of a deep calling and commitment to serve students, labored non-stop to pivot from a highly residential learning approach to one that had to be remote yet as personal as possible.
  • I remember alumni, friends, and Arkansas Baptists – who we stopped asking for financial contributions last Spring out of respect for the struggles they were going through – kept giving anyway, allowing us to meet 99% of our need.
  • And, I remember seniors departing from campus the last time, some in tears, and some gathering for prayer in Berry Chapel. I remember how they prayed for me.

Their resilience to finish in the face of adversity also resulted in the highest four-year graduation rate in Ouachita’s recorded history.

Indeed, this crisis confirmed the essential character of Ouachita. We can forever bear witness to the good that was done here when it counted most. We give thanks to the Lord and for all the people, past and present, who have made Ouachita, Ouachita.

Yes, crises and adversity reveal character and the experiences may also illuminate a truth – truth that changes our heart, our habits and our hopes for our future – truth that also forges character.

At Ouachita, we value truth. We believe we learn truth from the written word, the Bible; from following the living word, Jesus Christ; and from studying the world and its people.

So again, and put another way, it seems appropriate to consider “How are the truths we’re learning in the midst of a pandemic changing our character for good?” I can’t answer this for you, but by way of illustration, I can share one of my own answers.

In the mid-1990s, a family crisis led us to resign from a job, sell our home, change careers and move across the country. It was the right course of action for Lisa and me, but it was also hard because it involved a great many unknowns for our family.

I still remember what an older, wiser Christian said to me back then – a sentence his mentor had said to him 50 years earlier: “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.” [1]

Twenty-five years ago, I intuitively understood what he meant, but it took a pandemic to help me realize its full meaning and fully apply it to my daily life. Even so, that realization didn’t come all at once. Over the course of our lives, there were many times of challenges and confusion. There have been for me, especially in the last several months. At Ouachita, we had to make so many consequential decisions in such a short amount of time. We couldn’t see very far ahead. At times it felt as if we couldn’t see even an hour ahead.

The truth, “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see” was realized in my life in many ways.

Seeking wisdom and guidance, I went deeper into my daily discipline of time with the Lord by immersing myself in the Psalms because they helped me to better know God and understand life, by praying about everything, and by using prayerful reflection to guide the many decisions. This past spring, I experienced in real time the truth of Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (King James Version)

I also sought wisdom from others. “If you can’t see very far ahead, don’t go alone.” Ouachita is fortunate to have wise faculty, staff, trustees, and friends – the kind of people you want to go through a pandemic with. They exemplify Proverbs 20:18: “Form your purpose by asking for counsel, then carry it out using all the help you can get.” (The Message)

In the midst of last spring, after going deeper with the Lord, broader with wise colleagues and farther with sight and faith, I began to realize, pandemic or not, we never can truly see very far ahead, even less so without faith, without family and without strong, unselfish companions.

Friends, when those times come when you’re not quite sure how to proceed – and they will, then consider the advice that has proven so helpful to me: “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.”

[1] The advice to me – “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see” – came from Ralph Winter (1924-2009), founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, where Lisa and I served and was influential in our lives. Winter’s presentation at the 1974 Congress on World Evangelization is recognized for bringing attention to the concept of “unreached people groups.” In 2005, Winter was named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. Winter told me the advice came to him from one of his mentors, Dawson Trotman (1906-1956), who founded The Navigators and is often credited with highlighting the importance of one-on-one discipleship in the evangelical movement.

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