Faith & Service

When Convocation Gets Real

By Karen Kingsbury, June 8, 2018

Unlikely guests show the power of redemption and forgiveness through Christ

The names of upcoming Liberty University Convocation guests are released, and you can’t believe it. Your blood boils. “This is crazy!” You scowl. “Why him? How could they bring that guy to Liberty?” You shake your head. “I thought this was a Christian university.”
Some of the featured guests this past school year included people whose past sin put them in the national headlines. A well-recognized athlete who punched his girlfriend in an elevator. A college coach forced to resign for violating a morality clause. A football player who ran an illegal dogfighting ring.
Not the sort of men suitable to take the stage at Liberty University, you say.
But what about a religious leader named Paul who ordered the death of countless Christians, or a king who had an affair and killed the woman’s husband?
Or what about an adulteress caught in the act and dragged to the center of Main Street? Jesus saw the men about to stone the woman, and he made a statement that resonates through time to this day: “You who are without sin, throw the first stone.”
If there is one thing that unites us, it’s sin. We mess up. We fail. Promises are broken. Time and time and time again. And we all need the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The very reason Jesus went to the cross and died for us.
David Nasser, senior vice president for spiritual development at Liberty, invited former NFL players Michael Vick and Ray Rice along with former Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze to share their stories. He said it’s important to learn about the consequences of sin, the importance of repentance, and the reality of Christ’s forgiveness.
“People need to hear that they are bigger than one mistake,” Nasser said. “They might disqualify themselves from a job or certain things because of a mistake, but they never disqualify themselves from the love of Christ. They never disqualify themselves from the redemption in the Gospel.”
Rice was caught on camera in 2014 beating his then fiancee in an elevator. The video released by TMZ began a national conversation on domestic violence.
But his story did not end there.
“Here is a young man who has made a horrific mistake,” Nasser told the Convocation crowd on Dec. 6. He said that the former football player has received counseling, quit drinking alcohol, and has married the woman he abused. “Together they have two children. Their walk with God has been the foundation by which they have built a redemption story.”
Rice said that his upbringing led to wrong thinking that gave him sickening permission to abuse others — including those he loved.
“I did too much trying to be the man, instead of being a man,” Rice said. “I failed miserably beyond domestic violence. My life was out of order. God wasn’t first, and I had to change that.”
Today, he speaks out against domestic violence and shares the message of God’s grace and forgiveness with whoever will listen.
Yes, many LU Convocation speakers show students the hope of perseverance and living for Christ. “But,” Nasser said, “some guests will teach our Liberty community about redemption.”
Redemption. The story of the apostle Paul, who went from overseeing the murder of Christians to giving his life for the ministry. It is the story of the woman caught in adultery, and it is the story of Ray Rice. It is your story, and it is mine.
Nasser chose to also highlight the anonymous stories of numerous Liberty students who have suffered from domestic violence. The intent was to validate and help victims, who were given information to connect with Liberty’s Student Counseling Services and encouraged to speak to their personal LU Shepherd if they were facing violence of any kind.
“This was an important discussion for us all,” Nasser said. “Everyone deserves to live in safety. And no one is beyond forgiveness and redemption.”
On Jan. 24, former Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze spoke for the first time since being forced to resign for immoral behavior. He appeared on Liberty’s stage with his wife, Jill, and his pastor, Chip Henderson. The three spoke about how surviving moral failure happens only by the power of God’s Spirit and the grace of His never-ending love.
“It is important to show people they are loved, even in the valley of brokenness,” Henderson said.
Which was why five days later Nasser welcomed Vick to the stage. More than his $130 million football contract, Vick is most known for serving two years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for his part in an organized dogfighting ring.
Vick’s story surprised students. He held up a Bible while he spoke. “I slept with this under my pillow from the time I was 12 years old,” he said. “I relied on God right up until I signed my NFL contract. Then I left God behind. This, the Bible, it didn’t come with me.”
One Liberty parent said, “I’m grateful this university is letting students hear from people like Michael Vick. There are real consequences for jumping into life without God and His Word. And with true repentance, there is always hope with Jesus that you can come back home.”
Nasser said he was aware that his choice of recent speakers would be controversial. Some students expressed concerns on social media about even attending the sessions with Rice, Freeze, and Vick.
But the vast majority of students who showed up were treated to something critical for the development of the mature Christian: acknowledging how sin can destroy a person but there is power over the sin through a second chance in Jesus.
Vick got through his years at Leavenworth by reading the Bible again, the way he had as a child. Specifically, he read Psalm 23, the psalm his mother never stopped praying over him.
Remember the words? Written by a man after God’s heart? The one who once upon a rooftop made the worst mistake of his life? An affair and a brutal murder later, and King David’s redemption brings deep meaning to the words.
“Surely Your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Repentance. Redemption. Goodness. Love.
For Ray Rice and Michael Vick and Hugh Freeze. For Paul and the adulterous woman and David. For me. For you.
Suddenly you hear something and you look to the left and right.
All around you, stones are falling to the ground. One after another, as those who had gathered to judge and convict realize that the controversial speakers at the center of this story are not unique. They are sinners. Like you. Like me. The realization comes over you as your critical heart begins to melt. And then the most beautiful thing happens.
You drop your stone, too.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Karen Kingsbury is an adjunct professor of writing at Liberty University. The Karen Kingsbury Center for Creative Writing opened at Liberty in 2017. With more than 25 million copies of her books in print, Karen’s last dozen titles have hit the top of bestsellers’ lists, including her newest novel, “To the Moon and Back.” Later this year, her Baxter family books will be the subject of a TV series, “The Baxters.” Several of her books have been made into TV and theatrical movies. She and her husband, Don, live in Nashville and have five adult children, including three sons who are currently students at Liberty.

Convocation is held at 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each semester in the Vines Center. More than 80 nationally prominent guests visit each year. The lineup is chosen based on whether the guest’s message will contribute to pivotal cultural conversations that stretch both the hearts and minds of students, faculty, and staff. Watch past Convocations on Liberty’s YouTube channel or at

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