Looking at how chapel shapes a semester at Harding by giving us our daily bread | By Shelby Dias and Jennifer Hannigan | Photography by Jeff Montgomery |
For 30 minutes every weekday, the University does something it has honored since its beginning: gather together for chapel. In the 1924 Harding College catalog, the purpose of chapel was described as “one of the chief characteristics of the school’s work” and that the “devotional service talks [were] intended to prepare the student for dealing sanely with the problems of life, to develop proper ideals of true manhood and womanhood, and to impart a desire for accomplishing greater things.”
Each semester provides 75 opportunities for students to come together and continue that tradition more than 90 years in the making. The fall 2016 semester brought many examples of devotionals and presentations that held true to that declaration. These are just a few of the semester’s presentations and how they came to be.
SETTING THE TONE
The first day of chapel sets the stage for the rest of the year, and the beginning of the 2016-17 school year was no exception. President Bruce McLarty took a moment to catch up with the student body and also introduce two pillars of Harding, former Presidents David B. Burks and Clifton L. Ganus Jr. This particular day marked Burks’ 50th first chapel.
“They are an endearing part of campus,” McLarty says. “Their presence also roots us historically as these are two people who came in ’61 and ’39, and that gives you a sense of continuity.”
McLarty then took the rest of the time to discuss what chapel means within the Harding community, something he continually emphasizes.
“There is no consensus of what expectations for chapel are when people come in,” McLarty says. “So on the first day I want students to know that chapel is a myriad of things, and that we’re making these three bold declarations that these are the primary pieces of chapel, and I think it gives everybody a folder to put chapel experiences in. It keeps us from being defined in a way that we don’t want to define ourselves.”
In his remarks, McLarty defined chapel as worship, community building, and affirmation of the identity of Harding. With songs supporting each concept, he presented the ways that chapel fills those various roles. Chapel as worship provides a time of reorientation for those involved. It is also a place where the University gets to celebrate the good things together as well as mourn together. It also serves as a connection point for many alumni after they’ve left.
“Many people say that, after they’re gone, the thing they miss most about Harding is chapel. And students sometimes don’t believe me when I say that, but they’ll often find themselves saying the same thing once they graduate.”
It is in that worship and community building that chapel serves its purpose of affirming the University’s identity.
“Being in chapel, students are part of something bigger than themselves,” McLarty says. “By gathering together, we are confessing for one more day that we are a Christian university and affirming that spiritual vision.”
CONNECTING THROUGH SONG
Early in the fall semester students, faculty and staff focused four days of chapel on the hymn “Be With Me Lord.” Written by T.O. Chisholm and L.O. Sanderson, the song has an interesting Harding connection — Sanderson also wrote the music to the University’s alma mater. His son, Leon, introduced the hymn during a Tuesday chapel, and students spent the remainder of the week digging deeper into the words of each verse.
McLarty selected both the hymn and speakers for the chapel series by looking to members of the Harding community with connections to the song, powerful stories of faith, or an aptitude for illuminating the 1934 lyrics.
“I chose ‘Be With Me Lord’ after looking for an old song that is apparently slipping away but one where the words are rich so that, if students today were introduced, they would gravitate to it,” McLarty says.
Chair of the Department of Chemistry Dennis Matlock spoke of “if storms of trial burst above my head” and his experience as a war veteran who came to faith later in life. Associate Professor of English Michael Claxton detailed the “constant sense of thy abiding presence.” Professor of Bible Ross Cochran shared his experience of loss and grief “when loneliness o’er-takes me.”
According to Claxton, the series offers an introduction to students who have never heard the hymn and deeper reflection on the words some may have sung for years.
“The message is to slow down and pay attention to the words of this song. In the same way in which you can spend an entire Bible class on a passage, there are certain songs that reward that type of deep thought in each verse.”
The hymn series is part of a larger effort by the chapel committee to ensure songs in worship are continually varied, featuring a mix of hymns and contemporary songs throughout the semester.
“You’re always a few generations away from completely losing songs,” Claxton says. “They go out of fashion, and nobody sings them anymore. Now there are probably some songs that should go out of fashion, but then there are others that connect us to our heritage. Not only do they articulate truth about scriptural things, but they connect us — to sing songs that your parents and grandparents have loved just gives you more in common with them.”
UNITY ABOVE DIVISION
A cornerstone of Harding’s identity as a Christian university, chapel serves as a daily confession of the University’s continued mission. This practice is especially beneficial when current events, such as the presidential election in November 2016, saturate discussions and divert attention.
“We didn’t want politics to eclipse the spiritual fellowship and unity of chapel,” McLarty says. “The most nonpartisan thing in the world is to have a prayer chapel.”
Chapel on Nov. 8, 2016, featured prayer at length about the world, the nation, the Searcy community, faculty, staff and students. With the thought that the entire world is represented some way in the Harding community, prayers were focused on peace, unity, discretion and wisdom for all levels of government throughout the world.
“Prayer is us showing that we know who is ultimately in control,” says Zach Neal, assistant vice president for student life. “It reminds us as a Harding family that we are all here for each other with a focus on Christ. We have an avenue through Christ in prayer, and we want to encourage each other with that while also modeling the proper response to any situation — a conversation with God.”
Other prayers began with a broad focus and then narrowed to a more personal level. Senior Spanish major Daniel Evans offered a prayer for faculty and staff, while Assistant Professor of Finance Josiah Smelser offered a prayer on behalf of students. Election Day chapel and the days that followed fulfilled the significant role of affirming the importance of faith and mission above current events.
“The following day was mission chapel, and I spoke a little about the election at the beginning of chapel,” McLarty says. “What better way to move on after an election than to talk about the work still left to be done and say ‘Let’s get to work.’”
A MILITARY MISSION FIELD
In recognition of Veterans Day, Dr. Shawn Fisher, assistant professor of history and faculty liaison for ROTC and veterans’ affairs, invited Capt. Ryan Scott (’98) to speak in chapel. Scott, an alumnus and West Point instructor, is a strong supporter of the University’s veterans group and was a virtual member while earning his MBA through Harding’s online program.
Scott delivered what he called his “missionary report,” commenting on the state of faith in the military, the ways he has shared his faith during his time with the Army, and how others can help those enlisted.
“He’s always seen himself as primarily a missionary,” Fisher says. “We could have brought in people who would have had their military experience to relate, but most of the audience have not served. Another way to connect with them that’s not just citizen to veteran is from one brother to his brothers and sisters in Christ. Ryan speaks to that idea of a community of mission very well.”
Fisher and Scott had discussed the University’s ROTC program in the past, and both wanted to help students transition from college to military more easily and prepare them for the 1.5 million people to whom they can minister in the U.S. military. University ROTC members — junior social work major Christopher Allison, senior history major Andrew Davis, junior Bible and preaching major Josh Joiner, sophomore marketing major Perry Patton, freshman history major Jameson Perry, and sophomore social science major Timothy Wright — were able to lead prayers, sing and read Scripture as a part of the devotional.
“It’s an encouragement to our ROTC members to let them stand up and be recognized and be leaders,” Fisher says.
Scott shared a story about how during basic training he was willing, cheerful and hardworking but didn’t preach using his words. He let Christ be Christ within him, and that was noticed by his peers. He stated that the military is a fertile mission field that is open to faith and worth prayers and efforts.
“I gave him just a general charge on what to speak on, and when it was over I thought, ‘I wish I had written that talk for him.’ It was absolutely perfect,” McLarty says. “It was greatly respectful of and grateful for military service, but the core of his message was not military service — it was the mission of God.
“Speaking to me between chapels, Ryan said that he loves the military academy and working with students who have such a sense of purpose and mission, but upon looking out at University chapel, he saw a sea of people with an unlimited mission.”
A SEND-OFF FROM SENIORS
The end of the semester brings with it a number of goodbyes, whether it’s students leaving for Christmas break or seniors graduating. To commemorate the seniors’ time at Harding, a handful are invited to leave a final thought with the student body. Journalism major Anna Winchester and accounting and finance major Austin Yates were two of four chosen to speak, and each told how college changed them.
“Both of them talked about tremendous transformation, how different life was coming into college and what they learned about themselves, and then they leave as different people,” McLarty says.
Winchester wanted to remind her peers to cherish their time at Harding. She recounted growing up in a secular home and her first semester of college spent at a state school. Upon arriving at Harding, she experienced “culture shock in the best way.” But over time, the excitement wore off, and the weight of classes and projects took its place. It wasn’t until her final semester that her outlook changed.
“I had a friend, Blake Hunter, who passed away, and I thought about that and how when that happened I realized the fragility of being here,” Winchester says. “My little brother is 18, has autism, and isn’t high functioning academically enough to come to Harding. When I complained to him about doing homework, he said, ‘I wish I could go to college.’ Here I am complaining about a wonderful place that I have the privilege of attending and people would love to be in a place like this.”
Winchester felt that this idea — to cherish what is in front of you — made the best use of her time on Benson stage.
“I thought that, even though it might not make a difference, maybe this group would want to know that you need to cherish where you’ve been and the time you have here.”
Yates wanted to balance his college memories with the deeper impressions his time at Harding made.
“You want to share some funny times you’ve had here, but you also want to share some core truths that go far beyond your activities,” Yates says. “I don’t think the activities matter as much in the long term, especially when you think about the other things you learn at Harding, the life truths that God will reveal to you.”
Yates recounted his first years at the University, realizing that while he excelled in high school, college provided a greater challenge. While he arrived with a large ego, he found himself slipping into insecurity, and that opened a door for him to build a foundation on Christ rather than himself.
“I think college communicates self-importance because we’re at a time in life where we’re told to pour into ourselves. But for the life of a Christian, that only makes sense if we’re looking toward the future of pouring out. This is such a short time period, and we need to turn our hearts outward so that, by the time we leave, we’re ready to go out into the world.”
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