The test -- related to Proverbs 3:5-6 -- is how they will answer a defining question: "Are you going to choose to do what God has told you to do?"
"This is a simple call to you, for you are someone quite special. God has saved you. He has forgiven you of your sins. He has given you eternal life. But He has done something more," Kelley said. "... He has called you to spend the rest of your days in the service of His Kingdom with particular purposes and particular plans.... It is not as easy an exam as it seems."
Some 195 students participated in the seminary's 92nd annual commencement exercises. Graduates earned certificates and degrees on the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. Eight graduates earned doctor of philosophy degrees.
Kelley illustrated the challenge of the choice to obey God with the story of a trip he made to Lubbock, Texas, for an associational evangelism conference. Upon landing in Lubbock, Kelley said he met a man holding a sign which read "Welcome, Dr. Kelley."
Kelley and his host set off from the airport and got into a discussion of the cattle business. Soon Kelley found himself at a fairgrounds, in a place that looked nothing like an evangelism conference. Kelley realized that, while he was indeed "Dr. Kelley," he was not the one expected for the cattlemen's conference.
"It looked right ... but looking right doesn't mean it is right," Kelley told graduates. "It's harder than it seems. In fact, opportunities to serve the Lord can look almost perfect, but that word 'almost' can make all the difference. As you go through a life of service to the Kingdom of God, you will have opportunities that are almost right, but not precisely where God has called you to be. And whether or not you settle for 'almost' will make all the difference."
Kelley drew from his own life in ministry, where opportunities seemed almost perfect but were not squarely in the center of God's will. Kelley also recalled a time when as a young seminarian, he was without a job, without a car and with no vision for the future.
Kelley said he stood in Central Garage, in the heart of New Orleans' historic French Quarter, and wept.
"I had no vision for the future of anything that God could ever do with me," Kelley said. "But because you don't have a vision doesn't mean that God doesn't have a plan. Sometimes the most important thing in the world is not seeing the end of the road; it's just seeing the next step."
Kelley called his father, a committed Baptist layman, who listened as his only son poured out his heart. Kelley's father told him he would walk with him through the trials, but then he said: "There's one thing I haven't heard you say: You haven't told me that God had changed your call. You haven't told me that God no longer wants you in His service. Just because you don't see it now, doesn't mean God has changed His plans."
Kelley stayed in seminary and continued into the doctoral program. Blessed with a passion for evangelism, Kelley thought that was his calling. God, however, had other plans, steering Kelley to ministry through academia. It was an unexpected change of course.
"How often have you thought about playing golf on Mars?" Kelley asked his audience. "That's how often I thought about being a seminary professor."
Kelley eventually accepted an offer to teach at his alma mater, not out of personal desire, but out of obedience to the call of God.
"That's what it comes down to," Kelley said. "Are you ever going to let anything substitute for complete obedience to what God wants you to do."
In the midst of a vigorous classroom discussion during a class on the evangelism of Jesus, Kelley had an epiphany.
"Suddenly I realized that all of my life, God had been getting me ready for this," Kelley said. "I found out that even though I thought my passion was not God's purpose, I found out that God's purpose was perfectly suited to the passion I just didn't see through His eyes. This is the choice for a woman of God, for the man of God."
Kelley closed by reminding his audience of the Proverbs 3:5-6 text: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and He will direct your paths."
"Is that statement true, or is that statement false?" Kelley asked. "The rest of your life will flow from your answer to that question. As for me, I vote for true."
Among the 23 doctoral graduates were two brothers, Michael Ray Bird and Ronald Bird, originally from Lafayette, Ind. The Birds, who pastor churches in Mississippi, each received the doctor of ministry degree.
Paul F. South writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
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