A Conversation with David S. Dockery
I will instruct you and show you the way to go; with My eye on you, I will give counsel.
We all need guidance at points in our lives. Sometimes we are confronted with big decisions, like whom to marry or whether to accept a job offer. At other times small decisions clamor for attention, like which camera to buy or at which hotel we should stay while on vacation. I am a firm believer in research and, for example, take full advantage of Consumer Reports or the ratings on Amazon.com. Yet how to live life well finds inadequate coverage by even the best books on Amazon's virtual shelves. For a whole-life guide, nothing beats the Bible, still the best-selling book of all time. However, there are good ways and bad ways of accessing the Bible's wisdom, so I invited Dr. David S. Dockery to sit down for a chat about how we should read the Bible as a guide for life.
David serves as the fifteenth president of Union University where I teach. Not only is he the best university president I know of, but he is the best university president I can imagine. David is a scholar who has written or edited dozens of books. Having won awards in the classroom, he has the heart of a teacher, and his vision for university education has won him accolades from Christian leaders across the country. God has graced David with many gifts including an extraordinary measure of wisdom for dealing with people, for building community, and for navigating difficult situations.
Yet the word difficult is too mild for what our university experienced on February 5, 2008. That night an F4 tornado tore through our campus, causing close to $45 million in damage. Having seen David Dockery lead us through that crisis moment, I could think of no better place to begin our discussion on "Reading the Bible as a Guide for Life." So on a bench in the middle of the fourteen dormitories built in the wake of the storm, we sat down to talk. The day was windy but beautiful, a mild spring day that made the night of the tornado seem like a crazy dream.
I started our conversation with, "Well, David, the weather today is quite different from what we experienced back on February 5, 2008. What do you remember about that night?"
David leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and said, "That was a night we'll never forget on this campus, George. It was a time when we saw walls crumbling down—the campus literally within an eyelash of total ruin. I was in my office when the tornado struck the campus, and shortly thereafter, about 7:04 p.m., my phone began to ring. I was told that the tornado had hit the residence life area. Two deans who were with me and I came out to the residence life area as quickly as we could. We saw devastation like we've never seen before. It was just unbelievable. Six academic and administration buildings were damaged. We lost sixteen residence life facilities.
"We saw students coming out of their rooms cut, bruised, disoriented, frightened, and not knowing what had happened. Twelve hundred students were in the dorms at the time. When the first emergency workers arrived on the scene, they phoned the hospital and told them to expect fifty to one hundred fatalities. We took fifty-one students to the hospital that night, nine who were seriously injured; but by God's grace no lives were lost. God sustained us."
Thinking back to that night, I remembered sitting in a closet in my home about twenty minutes away from the campus. I tracked the tornado by radar on my laptop; it clearly was a tornado, a big one with a spinning, purple center. My family and I watched it carve its way through West Tennessee and head directly for the university. I said to my wife, Pat, and the kids, "That has got to be going right over Union." So we prayed that God would keep our students safe. The night was a night of chaos.
Yet one of the things that people have said was most striking about the night of the tornado was the poise of our students. Over the next few days a number of students were interviewed on television. The big media stations like CNN, FOX News, and ABC were looking for interviewees who were falling apart and panicking, but that's not what they found. Our students were amazingly poised. I asked Dr. Dockery about that response.
A young female student came walking down the sidewalk, certainly wondering what the professor and president were doing having a conversation in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the dorm area. As she walked on by, David noted, "At 6:00 on the morning following the storm, media from every national network were here. We did interviews that morning with FOX, NBC's Today show, ABC's Good Morning America, and with CBS's The Early Show. We did a national press conference with MSNBC, and then they started talking with our students, just pulling students aside at random.
"An hour or so later, one of the major network producers came to talk with me. He said, 'Have you prepared or scripted these students?' I said, 'Sir, we are just—we're barely trying to hold our life together here, and we're in emergency mode, and I don't have any idea who you've talked to.' He said, 'Well, they're echoing everything you said during the first interviews.' I said, 'That's not because they listened to me or we scripted them; that's just the nature of the Union University community. Our students live their lives grounded in Christ and the Bible, and even in this kind of situation, they respond in light of who God is and in light of the bigger picture rather than just out of their own concerns.' The news outlets came here thinking they were going to find stories of despair—they told us so. All they found were stories of hope. Hope sustained us and carried us through, hope that only comes from the promises of God and His wonderful faithfulness which is revealed to us in His Holy Word."
By God's grace we rebuilt our campus. The dorms were built in about six months—no small feat—and $17 million was raised to make up the difference between what insurance would cover and what the new, state-of-the-art dormitories would cost to build. David commented, "God has provided for us, and the people of God became His agents of grace and mercy to us. We've been able to do it without sustaining long-term debt for the institution, and we have been able to provide these beautiful facilities for our students for years and decades to come. It is a 'thanks be to God' moment at Union University."