by Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew P. B. White
Today is the start of the rest of your life. It is a start to success. You have been given one of the greatest gifts in life: an education at its highest level that is second to none. This gift has been given to most of you by those who love you so much—your parents. I want to begin by thanking them on your behalf. Thank you for sending your loved ones to Wheaton College, a college that is not just a fine academic institution, but has as its most essential foundation a love for the Almighty.
Today we celebrate that you have achieved what you had hoped for, and go forward with great certainty. Today two wonderful things go with you. The first is Wheaton. You will always be a Wheaton person. You will never forget the time you have spent here—how you have learned, been nurtured and transformed. The second and most wonderful divine thing to go with you is the One who is the foundation of this place—the Lord God, the Almighty. He will always be with you.
I have to confess that I love this place more than any other academic institution I visit in the world. I am a fellow of my own alma mater, Cambridge. I am a fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I speak at universities all over the world, but none of them compares to this place.
I spend most of my life in Iraq, where I lead the largest church in Iraq, and also look after the American Embassy Chapel in Baghdad. I have done this since the war in 2003. I do not remember a time when I have not had at least one Wheaton person in that chapel—once we had seven. While you can always tell a Wheaton person, you can’t tell them much.
So if you remember one thing from this talk today, I hope it is this: Do not take care—take risks. People say “take care” all the time. It is difficult to do that where I am. I have been held at gunpoint, kidnapped, thrown into a cell with chopped-off toes and fingers all over the floor, and shot at countless times.
When I graduated in England, I had no idea that I would be where I am now. I had studied surgery and anesthesiology. I could cut people up, sew them up, put them to sleep, and hopefully wake them up again. I had no plans to be in Baghdad as a pastor, or to be running the biggest church in Iraq and doing religious sectarianism work, engaging some of the worst terrorists in the world. Neither did I plan to be running the largest clinic in Baghdad with one of the best stem cell units in the world that uses only stem cells from the patients themselves. We have patients who come to Iraq for treatment from the United States and the UK because they cannot be treated in their own countries. Voluntarily entering a war zone for treatment, these patients know something about taking risks. I did not know when I graduated that my background in medicine and theology would come together in Baghdad.
Taking risks must always involve trust in the Almighty. Things will happen that you never can imagine. In 2004, during Easter, I was in Baghdad and I did not know what to preach on. I woke up the morning before Easter with a song in my head, “Because He Lives, I Can Face Tomorrow.” I preached on those words. Our service was in the open air by Saddam’s former swimming pool. We were using it that day as a baptistery. I preached and baptized three people there, including one of the [Iraqi] generals. I must have mentioned Wheaton because afterward five soldiers came up to me and said, “We are all Wheaton graduates.” Had they thought upon graduating from Wheaton that one day they would be celebrating Easter together next to Saddam’s swimming pool in Baghdad? They had all taken risks.
That night I went back to my cabin and wrote my regular online update. The next week, I took a phone call from a lady named Gloria, who said she had received my update from Dr. Tony Payne ’79 at Wheaton College. She said that she had been so inspired, and that she had long ago written the song “Because He Lives.” It was Gloria Gaither. At that time, I wasn’t aware of this famous Christian singer and songwriter. But more than 30 years ago in Indiana, Gloria took risks and wrote the song that many years later would inspire us by Saddam’s swimming pool one Easter in Baghdad.
We do not know how our Lord will use you, but He will. It could be that He will use you as a teacher, soldier, diplomat, businessperson, or even an accountant. After my medical training, I became an expert in Judaism. I studied in Israel, spoke Hebrew, and did my doctorate on the role of Israel in Christian theology. Then God sent me to one of the most radical Arab countries in the world. I was sent there because I listened to the Almighty. What’s more, I love doing what I am doing, and where I am doing it. We must listen to our Lord and do what He tells us to do.
There was another very famous person whom our Lord sent to Iraq. He did not know why he was taken into exile there. He did not know that God had a job for him: interpreting the dreams of the king. His name was Daniel. When Cyrus became king and allowed all the Jewish exiles to return to their home in Jerusalem, Daniel did not go. He stayed in Babylon—in Iraq. Daniel took risks and ended up where he had no plans to be. Our Lord still takes care of us when we are doing what He has called us to do. The fact is that you do not know what you will be doing in several years’ time. Listen to the Almighty and take risks, and you will never be disappointed.
Today is a great day for all of you, but it is only the very beginning. My closest friend in the U.S. Embassy runs all the services in the biggest embassy in the world. His name is Paul Yeskoo ’81, and he too was in this hall graduating from this, the best college in the world. He could not have imagined his life today, but God knew what he was to do.
So go forward with the assurance that you are going very far. You will all make mistakes; there will be times when you fall. But remember, it is not falling that is so bad—it is not getting up. So take risks, think big, and never ever give in. Be confident of this: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6, niv).