Professor Roy Atwood's Keynote Address at Nehemiah Gateway University

Professor Roy Atwood's Keynote Address at Nehemiah Gateway University

Sep 21, 2020

In 2020, with COVID-19 changing so many of the ways we do things, Nehemiah Gateway University's Group 8 graduated with their BAs in Economy and Business. Professor Roy Atwood, former Vice Rector of Nehemiah Gateway University, delivered an eloquent and powerful keynote address to the new graduates. Via Zoom, from his home in Moscow, Idaho. Below is the text of Professor Atwood's remarks.

Gratitude & Time
Roy Alden Atwood

18 September 2020

Members of the Supervisory Board, Rector Dr. Peter Makiriyado, Executive Director and Administrator Herolinda Shkullaku, Members of the University Administration, Faculty & Staff, Distinguished guests and friends of the University, parents, family members, friends of the graduates, and Graduates of the Class of 2020,

Greetings. Thank you for the privilege of addressing you today. I wish we were together in person. Unfortunately, because of the supreme weirdness of 2020, I must speak to you from the far side of the planet, which is social distancing to the extreme. Given the distance between us and the limited time we have together, we must make the most of it.

Which brings us to the theme of this ceremony.

I want you to encourage you to “Make the Most of Your Time” in two simple ways:

First, make the most of everything in your life (not just your time) with gratitude, and

Second, make the most of your time with a personal touch.

These really are not difficult things, but the ancients struggled over the issues of gratitude and time. We can’t do them justice this evening, but perhaps together we can find a few nuggets of wisdom for you to take with you on your journey after Nehemiah Gateway University.

First, I encourage you to . . .

I. Make the Most of Everything in Life (Not Just Your Time) with Gratitude

The phrase “make the most of it” is a strange English idiom usually invoked when someone faces hard times. Unfortunately, it often carries the assumptions of the ancient Stoic world view. The Stoics were Greek philosophers during the Hellenistic period who, ironically, made the least of their time sitting around shady porches of the public marketplace thinking less-than-great thoughts. They believed people should never let their emotions or passions influence their lives. Instead, they wanted us to face good and bad times alike with passionless resolve.

Later Stoics of the Roman Imperial period, like Seneca, were more extreme, arguing that true virtue is being immune to both misfortune and pleasure. The influence of the Stoics on Europe extended all the way to Hadrian’s wall in England. When troubles arise, the English are legendary for “keeping a stiff upper lip” and telling folks to “keep calm and carry on.” Stoicism’s influence on English culture may also be evident in their food, famous for being bland and passionless. At mealtime, they make the most of it with their Stoic “stiff upper lip” and swallow.

Thankfully, “making the most of it” has a better sense not rooted in Stoicism, but in thankfulness. The Apostle Paul, a contemporary of the Roman Stoics, and one of their harshest critics, told the Christians in Thessaloniki to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thess. 5:18). Are you facing hard trials? Give thanks. Are you dealing with a family tragedy? Give thanks. Are you being wrongly persecuted? Give thanks. Paul was not advocating a happy face brand of Stoicism but reminding us that everything we have—our families, our homes, our studies, our work, even our worst moments, everything—are gifts from God.

The only proper response to a gift is gratitude. Rather than being ungrateful when we receive gifts, we rightly respond with a heartfelt thanks to our gift-givers for their thoughtfulness and generosity. After all, as Paul told his Corinthian brothers, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7).

It can be hard to see the hard things in life as gifts. Few of us are thankful for the covid-19 pandemic. It has hurt so many and disrupted so much. Even this graduation ceremony has felt its negative effects. But if you look carefully, covid, like the moon, has more than just a dark side. It, too, has a brighter, gift-side.

Beverlee and I have become fond of saying that “covid saved her life.” It’s true. If the pandemic had not happened when it did, we would have remained in Albania until late summer. But the looming lockdown forced our return to the US sooner than we planned. That allowed her to be tested earlier for a minor medical concern, which revealed a much bigger life-threatening problem—her advanced ovarian cancer. Had covid not forced us to go home when it did, her cancer would have gone undiagnosed and become too advanced to be treatable. Today, she would be dying or dead. Instead, she had surgery in time to remove her tumors and chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells. Covid literally saved her life. So, we are thankful for covid. Of course, many have suffered and died from the virus, and we grieve for them. But that does not mean covid has only a dark side. For Bev and our family, at least, the pandemic was a timely gift for which we will always be grateful.

What do you have that you did not receive as a gift?

  • Your parents brought you into this world and nurtured you as best they could. Was growing up sometimes hard and unpleasant and not always go the way you hoped? Sure. But give thanks. Make the most of the life-gift you’ve been given.

  • Your teachers, mentors, and university professors taught you and corrected you as best they could. Was your education sometimes overwhelming and difficult and discouraging. Sure. But give thanks. Make the most of the education- and learning experience-gifts you’ve been given.

Remember to give thanks in all circumstances, as the Apostle Paul said, and say “thank you,” even in the hard trials. If you’re going to make the most of your time, as an NG University graduate today and forty years from now, do it with cheerful gratitude. Shine like the bright side of the moon in the darkest moments of night.

Second, I encourage you to . . .

II. Make the most of Your Time with a Personal Touch

What is time? It is indeed a curious thing. It has defied definition by some of the greatest intellects across the ages. The great St. Augustine pondered time in his book, Confessions, back in A.D. 397, shortly after he was consecrated the Bishop of the church in Hippo, North Africa. He wrote:

“What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.”

--St. Augustine, Confessions, XI.14

That sums up well, I think, our strange relationship to time. We know in our bones what time is; we just cannot explain it or define it. That poses an obvious problem for us tonight trying to make sense of “making the most of your time.”

A thousand years before St. Augustine, King Solomon said “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what was planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:10). He also said that time is like a vapor, a mist. We cannot grasp it. We cannot control it. It is like sand. Try to hold it, and it slips through our fingers.

Our ancestors were much better than us at reading the times and moments of our days and seasons of life in the natural world around them. Without a watch or calendar or other time-tracking technology today, we’d be lost. They, by contrast, understood time to be something intensely personal. They relied on their God-given senses and the community of family and neighbors around them to sustain the rhythms of their lives. The times and seasons moved at a human pace.

But that all changed one day long ago. I suspect it was some naughty, toga-wearing student in an ancient Greek classroom who started daydreaming about a machine that could “keep time” caged like an animal. He imagined a mechanical device that could tame time by reducing it into an impersonal object under his control. We Westerners have not recovered from that folly since.

The earliest timekeeping devices, like candle clocks, hourglasses, and sundials, were crude, but the coolest technology of their day. They were also wildly inaccurate. They were better at teaching students how not to read the motion of the sun and stars than they were at keeping time. The first time-devices we now call clocks were water-powered mechanisms developed in 3rd century B.C. Greece. From then on, it was a race to see who could make the most accurate and reliable time pieces.

The first mechanical clocks in Europe appeared around the 14th century. Like Stoicism and the English, the mechanical clock changed the way Europeans and eventually most Westerners understood time and life itself. Machines became the metaphor for the well-ordered life. The clock became the metaphor for the industrial revolution, with its dehumanized precision, punctuality, and efficiency. Most of you who come from what we call “relational cultures” have a much better appreciation of the social character of time than those of us from clock-loving, task-oriented cultures. Outside the Western world, people, not pendulums, generally have priority.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuality and efficiency are crucial in the workplace. Without them many would be stealing from their employers or customers. But punctuality and efficiency can be cruel taskmasters. When time, work, and human affairs in or out of the workplace are reduced to the punctuality and efficiency of a machine, we lose the personal touch in human relations. Under the relentless tick of the clock, we can easily become soulless machines cranking out work and treating others coldly. Siegfried Gideon, the famous Swiss architect and urban theorist, worried in his insightful book Mechanization Takes Command, that “future generations will perhaps designate this period as one of mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all” (p. 715). Let us do our part to keep that from happening.

The price we pay for a clock-driven culture is the loss of the human love and delight in others that makes life worth living. I suspect that is why so many people hate their jobs. They can’t wait for the end of the workday to return to their families and homes. There they find the love and human care that is often absent in their machine-paced workplaces. They aren’t lazy. They just feel the emptiness of being unloved cogs in a factory of dehumanized labor.

“Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her,” the British essayist G.K. Chesterton once observed. Likewise, people do not love their workplaces because they are important or profitable; they are important and profitable because they are loved. And we love what is personal and good.

Deep down, we understand this distinction. Spouses do not want to be a 30-minute appointment on a calendar. They want to feel the lingering touch of undivided affection. Children don’t thrive in a playroom whose only toys are punctuality and efficiency. They simply need a warm embrace and a reassuring word that they are loved qualitatively different than the products coming off the assembly-line.

This is precisely why many companies today are changing work environments to be more humane and to treat their employees in tune with the rhythms of a healthy human life. Clocks are wonderful, but they are not the best model for making the most of your time. The best model is the redeemed time of a life lived fully and loved well with gratitude and a personal touch.

We desire such redeemed time at home and work because it reflects our Triune Maker. All our days were created by the Ancient of Days. We live and move and have our being because the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, gave us breath and loves even the hairs on our heads.

So, make the most of your days in a way that is guided by the personal, not mechanized, frame of reference God created at the beginning. Love and care for your family, your neighbors, and your coworkers. They are persons who deserve to be treated like people. Their time is personal. Treasure it. Immerse yourself in it. And make the most of it with a personal touch.

In closing, let me leave you with a final Albanian postscript.

Making the most of the time you’ve spent in Albania will hopefully reflect the example of a young Illyrian mother, named Eurydice, who lived in Macedonia in the 4th century B.C. When literacy was very rare, especially among women, she taught herself and her children how to read. In his book, On the Education of Children, Plutarch, the famous Greek philosopher and a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, said Eurydice was the first among Balkan women to achieve her educational and intellectual goals, “despite being an Illyrian and a barbarian thrice over.” Despite that !! She became model for other women of her era and beyond. Her fame led officials to dedicate an inscription on a building in her honor.

Thus, we still remember her today for her commitment to learning and helping the next generation to achieve its goals.

You too, like Eurydice, have worked hard to learn your lessons and to train in the land of ancient Illyria. You have achieved your educational and intellectual goals. You have acquired the words and tools to become a model for others of your own era and beyond. Perhaps, one day your hometown will dedicate an inscription on a building in your honor.

They may, but only if you devote yourself to making the most of your time, like the Illyrian mother. You see, Eurydice was the mother of Philip the Second of Macedon and the grandmother of Alexander the Great. She didn’t know then what her little grandson would later become, and you cannot see the future either. But success in your future will be built on a foundation of . . .

  • Making the most of your time, with gratitude, and
  • Making the most of your time with a personal touch.

Class of 2020, thank you for being part of our university community. We love you. We will remember you fondly.

May the Lord of time bless you all your days.

Thank you.