By Frank Michael McCormack
NEW ORLEANS—New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College, the school’s undergraduate program, celebrated Dec. 13 as 250 students earned degrees. NOBTS President Chuck Kelley was the featured speaker.
Seven of the graduates were recipients of a full scholarship from the Caskey Center for Church Excellence, launched earlier in 2014.
Kelley began his charge to the graduates with a story from his days as an undergraduate student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
“When I first got to college, I learned what being homesick meant. I didn’t know a soul on campus,” Kelley said. “I went home every other weekend. It was a tough first semester.”
By his second semester, Kelley had forged some new friendships and even met Rhonda Harrington, who he would later marry.
“I just didn’t go home quite as much,” Kelley recalled of his second semester.
He spent the following summer involved in a camp and arrived back on campus the following fall semester as an official “Joe College,” Kelley said.
“I never went home,” he said. “I had dates and went to football games. I had a great semester. I was so rooted in college life.”
Kelley got a late start to the Christmas break his sophomore year, thanks to an English professor who “believed in going by the book” and not giving his class its exam early. The exam was set for Dec. 23.
“I stayed up all night studying. I went in to take that test and left the motor running in my car,” he said. “I was so ready to be home.”
With Waco in his rearview mirror, Kelley set off for Beaumont, only to break down somewhere en route. What was usually a four hour trip actually took eight hours.
“I will never forget turning the corner onto Infinity Lane and there was our house, driveway filled with cars because everybody was home already. I was the last one,” Kelley said. “In the driveway, my mom had made sure there was one space left for the ‘only boy’ to park, because he was coming home.”
Kelley said he sat in the driveway, watching the sparkle of Christmas lights inside, knowing that his family would be excited to see him and that there would be a plate waiting for him.
“It was the first time in my life that I understood what being home meant,” he recalled. “There in that car in that driveway, ‘Joe College’ melted and that sense of home became a part of who I am.”
Kelley said that experience helped bring new significance to the imagery and concept in the Bible of “coming home,” and the relationship to God that “coming home” language conveys. Kelley read Psalm 139, which begins, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me! … Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? … For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
“The Bible says God is the creator of us all. That he knows your name,” Kelley said. “He knows the color of your eyes. Ladies, he knows the real color of your hair. Guys, he knows how many hairs you used to have.”
And it is entering into a relationship with that same God that carries with it that ultimate sense of coming home.
“And whenever we bring someone to a connection with God, we are bringing them home to a heavenly father who created them,” Kelley said. “That is what we do here. We bring people home.”
Kelley said he sometimes envisions a time in heaven for each person when God will usher in everyone who is there, due in part to the witness of that person.
Kelley imagined the line of people saying, “You came and found me when I wasn’t even looking, and you brought me [home]” or “When I told you don’t ever bring up the name of Jesus again, you kept gently bringing him into our conversations until I came to him.”
Kelley said St. Augustine described in “Confessions” each person’s search for God this way: “You have made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless, until they find rest in thee.”
“That’s what we know about everybody. Whoever you are and whatever you do. Whatever you’re like. Whatever your interests or hobbies. Whatever your religious background or lack of religious background. However much you ignore, hate, love or cherish God and his ways, we know this about you: He loves and cherishes you,” Kelley said.
With that in view, Kelley offered graduates a simple challenge: Bring them home.
“I want you to remember that you have one very simple responsibility. You’re to spend the rest of your life doing all you’re able to do to bring them home to the Father,” Kelley said, calling that challenge each graduate’s ultimate job description. “The job description is nothing more or nothing less than this: Bring them home.”