Below is the text of the Commencement Address delivered by U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Major General Thomas Solhjem to the North Central University Class of 2021 on April 30, 2021.
If you would like to listen to the Commencement Address, you can do so by following this link.
“President Hagan, I had the opportunity last evening to meet your lovely bride, Mrs. H. And it’s a team. That’s going to be a theme today. So don’t forget that it’s all about a team. Our chancellors, Rich and Robin Wilkerson, thank you all for your leadership and for leading this great university forward in what I see here today. And I’m going to talk about that in a minute, too. And I want to thank all those that are here today in person. Faculty, thank you for your investment, and those of you that are watching virtually, in this student body. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your leadership, and to the staff and the supporting personnel that put all of this together today, thank you so very much for making this day a reality and to be able to do it in-person, for the most part. Now, family and friends and distinguished alumni and other guests that are watching virtually today, you ought to be proud.
“We have a term that we use frequently in the military. We have a lot of abbreviations and acronyms. So I’m going to give you one: S.W.P. Now I’m going to tell you what it means: Swelling with Pride. Today, many people who are not here in person are swelling with pride, as they have seen what God is doing in your life—what it took to get you here to this point, because I know in every person here, there’s a story and I’m going to share mine in just a moment. It’s not lost on me how difficult and challenging and, especially in this environment. So thank you, students, the most important reason that we’re here today— the graduating class, with North Central University, 2021, thank you for being faithful to get to this point. Let’s give it up for this class right now. [applause]
“Thirty-nine years ago, I was sitting in your seat, and I could not have imagined what God would do in the life of Jill and myself. I’m going to back up a little bit and I’m looking at the clock and I know that less is more, so I’m going to try to deliver on ‘less is more’ today.
“I grew up in rural North Dakota and my parents divorced at a very impressionable young age in junior high. And maybe many of you sitting here have experienced the brokenness in family, and my world spiraled downward as a result of what transpired. And for the sake of time today, we will not unravel it any further. I became a rebellious young person. I didn’t fare well in the public school system. And after my sophomore year, I was sent to a private school because the public school would not have me anymore.
“When the Army, this was in the Vietnam era, the Army was beginning a volunteer force – and to get away from home in my circumstances, in drug addiction and other lifestyle choices that were not healthy or helpful, I joined the United States Army and brought all of those vices with me.
“I was stationed in Bamberg, Germany. I became addicted to heroin, other drugs, whatever was available. I became suicidal. I twice had to have my stomach pumped from a drug overdose. And then there was a divine intervention. There was an African-American soldier. That was a different Army—I need to qualify that Army does not exist today. And I thank God for it. Those were troubling times and we think we have difficulties today. I want to take you back in time. We had racial unrest in our nation. We had racism that was rampant in our military. Our morals were off the rails as a nation.
“And in the midst of all that God sent an angel. And that angel into my life was none other than Sergeant First Class Doc McElroy, an African-American from Kentucky, who was a Vietnam veteran, who saw this young person upside down and underwater, and who simply loved on me. And he listened to me. Is that a familiar theme today? He got to know me. He got to understand me. And in building the bridge of a relationship, was able to speak life into my brokenness, and shared his faith in Christ with me. And in the humblest of circumstances in a barracks room in Bamberg Germany, I knelt down in February of 1976 and asked Jesus Christ to do something with my life.
“And that moment—that transformational moment—I share with you today because of the cast of characters that God used: A sharecropper’s son from Kentucky, who had no reason to love or like this white guy, for the way he had been treated (and his family), yet the transformation inside of him didn’t prevent him from touching the life of someone who was different than him.
“As I was leaving military service, I sat in the chapel one day—you be careful what you pray, especially if you pray prophetically, I didn’t even know what that meant. I was so new in my faith, but I realize that in the scope of time, as I reflect back, and I think to that moment in time, I realize that it was God’s Spirit at work in me in a way that I didn’t understand.
“And I did not like the Army. If you can understand, I was surviving. I was simply surviving, and the last thing I wanted to do was to continue to serve. But I was so thankful and Doc McElroy, I was such a mess. He handed me off to the chaplain, and the chaplain was from Minnesota—you can’t make this stuff up. He was Evangelical Free. And he and his wife, Linda, they just loved on the person that you see here today. We call it discipleship. But more importantly, they opened up their lives and their home to me. And I became a part of their family. So as I was sitting in that chapel that day, and I said, ‘God, I don’t know what the future holds. I want to do your will. I know I’m called into ministry.’ And I thought, ‘You know, how could I show God how serious I am in this moment?’ You ever been there? You’re going to throw it up, right? And hope something happens. And I said that day in that chapel, in Bamberg, Germany, ‘Lord, I would do anything. I would even be’ … And I thought of Chaplain Sanford … I said, ‘Lord I’d even be an Army chaplain.’
“I got up from that prayer moment, that utterance, it was a simple prayer. And when I walked out of that chapel, from that very moment, I knew what I was called to be. And when people would ask me, ‘Tom, what are you going to do? When you go back home?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to be an Army chaplain.’ And I didn’t even know how to get there.
“You received me here at North Central. I married my childhood sweetheart, whose family had had conversion experiences through someone sitting here on the platform’s family. And the entree into the Assemblies of God, little church in Wahpeton, North Dakota. That’s where the intersection for me began. And when I went out on my first date with Jill (I’m pretty direct), I said, Jill, I just want you to know I’m not interested in a relationship other than that leads to marriage. And if you’re going to marry me and have me, you’re going to marry an Army chaplain. It sealed the deal. She was looking for a missionary, and that was the closest thing she was going to get.
“We showed up at North Central, you received me North Central. That person in the raw data that I just relayed to you, and my spiritual formation to root and grounding in this institution. I made friends for life. I often felt inadequate. How many of you have been there? So inadequate. So unworthy. I tell you when I was sitting where you’re sitting, I never thought I’d be standing here. I’m still pinching myself. So now I’m the 25th Army Chief of Chaplains. I’m their shepherd. But it really began here.
“So this is what I do, right? It’s a very diverse picture. If you look, it’s religiously diverse, it’s ethnically diverse, racially diverse, gender diverse. There are other stories behind the persons in the pictures that I’m not going to take time to tell today. But we are about investing in people, connecting them in spirit, and cultivating community. That is my job as the Chief of Chaplains. That is my commitment to the Army: to take care of, as I say wherever I go, the soul of the Army. That is my divine responsibility, and I will answer to God for it someday.
“Can you find me in this picture? Take a moment.
“We got everybody up there. Well, I’ll help you out…
“God has taken a young man with a perm, a passion, and a promise, and produced unbelievable results. Thank God the perm is over. And here’s what he has accomplished, the most of all of the accolades, it isn’t what you see in front of you today.
“It’s the portrait of a family. Friends, my life was going to end. I was ending it. This could have been a blank portrait—nothing realized. But by the grace of God and the loving Savior sending His spirit to speak, this is now a reality, not just a possibility. And so missing in that picture, because we’re a military family and all three of my sons joined the military, and I have a daughter as well. One of our sons is missing in this picture, regrettably, because he was deployed. But here we are on a farm that we used to have in North Dakota. That is the Solhjem family. That is the potential and the reality realized through divine intervention.
“It’s an empty frame. But as you leave here today, you’re writing the next chapters. Well, let me rephrase that: He is writing the next chapters in your life. It’s empty, but there’s a promise, ‘For, I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you not to harm you plans to give you a hope and a future.’
“If you forget everything I said today, much like Abraham Lincoln said many years ago, you know, ‘Few will remember what was said here today, but no one will ever forget what was done here today.’ Never forget what Jesus Christ did for you. Never forget the price that He paid for you. The love that He has for you, the hope and aspirations. If you think you have hope and aspirations, His are far greater than anything you could conceive or possibly imagine or hope for.
“I want to talk to you today about the next chapter in these few moments that I have. I’m here today to hopefully encourage, maybe inspire, but most importantly, prayerfully challenge you to live your life with excellence in all that you do for Him. Because you don’t know where it’s going to take you. And I am shameless about this: If you’re interested in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, please see me afterwards—and I’m serious. And if you don’t know how to get ahold of me, I know that there are people here that do. Because there is no greater joy than to serve your country and serve your nation and serve the men and women who wear the uniform and their families. And to just love on them.
“I don’t have time for stories today, but if we had time for a cup of coffee, it would take several of them to begin to tell the journey, what we’ve experienced, the divine appointments over the years. God’s faithfulness in difficult times—little did we know what we would be required of us! The separations, the deployments, the loss of life, combat, COVID-19, racial unrest, civil unrest, economic hardship, turmoil, political upheaval.
“Think of the context of Jeremiah 29. Where were they? They weren’t in a good place. And God spoke a prophetic word into their life. ‘Keep Your eyes fixed on me. Don’t look at your circumstances. Don’t look at the mask. Look at me.’ God holds the portrait of your future. Every chapter in His hands. Every experience we have and every person we meet serves a purpose. Don’t ever forget that—even those people in your life, that you would like to distance yourself from at times. What you do with that truth and how you will serve a purpose in the lives of others you need is the big question you have to answer. As each of you is leaving here with a focus and a direction. How you comport yourself in all your relationships is really going to be your biggest test.
“People along the way, but never in the way. As soldiers can often deliver some of the best of times and worst of time, I’ve seen everything. Actually, I saw most everything as an inner-city pastor here, I thought.
“Until I see sometimes what soldiers can get themselves into—much like the person standing before you today. Remember this brothers and sisters: it’s our plans, but it’s God’s will at the end of the day that trumps everything. Leadership is an imperative; it matters. Patrick Lencioni in his book, “The Ideal Team Player” said there are three attributes or qualities that you want in somebody who’s going to lead or be on your team. The first is humility. Lead with humility. Never forget where you’ve come from. Never forget who bought you with a price. Humility. Secondly, hunger. But not hunger for self-gratification. Hunger, for the right things. Hunger to see other people succeed. Hunger to see others get the credit for what you may have done. The ideal team player, in the sports analogy, it’s the one who, rather than taking the shot, passes it and lets someone else take it. Hunger to see others succeed. Hunger, to see the mission accomplished, whatever that mission is. And then, emotional intelligence. Are you self-aware, are you self-engaged? Are you others-aware? Others-engaged? Are you God-aware? God-engaged, most importantly. Leadership matters at the end of the day, but humility is essential.
“Growing your legacy, like the one that you saw just a few moments ago, and your family and your network of friends today, and tomorrow is in your future. God is writing the future chapters in your life and He’s painting a portrait that’s not yet fulfilled. Writing your life story so that the chapters before now, up until now, and all the next chapters of your life, add up to a life that was worth living. The question is: Is your life worth living? The answer is “yes.” Then live it to the fullest. Live it to the utmost for Him and for His glory. Imagine what your picture will look like when you’re 40 years away from Commencement.
“I’d take the color of my hair back, but not the perm. But we don’t get those opportunities. Because we’re not looking back, we’re looking ahead. We’re looking to the today and tomorrow to the promises yet unfulfilled, the work that God has yet to do, that He ultimately brings to completion on that day in Christ. When we’ll stand in His presence, and prayerfully, hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into what is yours.’
“I leave you with this today: Remember that wherever you go, whether you’re in the mountains of Afghanistan or on the plains of Iraq or in the recesses of Kuwait, the furthest reaches wherever you might find yourself in the dark night of the soul in troubled waters, you’re never alone. He’s the fourth man in the furnace. He’s always there with you. He will see you through. And if you feel a certain level of inadequacy in what you’re doing, that’s okay, because it’s an opportunity for God to show you what He can do through you.
“There are two voices in life. There’s the critic and there’s the champion. Let Christ be the voice you hear. Let Him be your champion. As He writes the chapters of your future, may you be victorious. May you walk humbly, circumspectly before your God, all the days of your life. May he bless you. May he prosper you. May He give you the increase in all that you do to bring glory and honor to Him. And may you live by these three simple principles that I received from a country preacher way back in the day as I was on my way to North Central, then Bible College, now University. It was Joe Schwartzentrooper, he was a transplant from Arkansas, in North Dakota—I don’t know, he must’ve missed a turn somewhere—but he was a Godsend; that was a divine appointment. I went to see brother Joe, and I was about to get married to Jill, and I was seeking sage advice. I was really looking for a checklist of what I needed to do. You ever been there? You just wanted somebody to tell you, ‘Okay, here’s what you do. Here’s what you do. Here’s what you do.’ But he didn’t do that.
“He said, ‘Brother soldier …’ he said three things: ‘all the days of your life, be teachable.’ He said, ‘Teachable people always recognize they don’t know everything. That puts you in the posture of always being a student.’ (Sorry to put that on you today.) But your learning has only begun. And humility will be your companion because when hubris is abated, humility can rise. And secondly, he said, in good Arkansonian, ‘Be pliable,’ multiple syllables pli-a-ble. And he explained it. He said, ‘Brother, soldier, pliability. You don’t know what’s going to come at you brother. And if you’re not rooted and grounded in your faith and in your relationships, you’re going to break.’ So stay grounded, firmly grounded, and whatever life throws at you, you will not only come back—that’s resilience, right? But pliability, Brother soldier, means you come back stronger.’
“And then thirdly, and most importantly, ‘Brother soldier, be faithful in all things. Be faithful. Be faithful to the God who called you and saved you out of your desperate condition and gave you a new life; to His Spirit that lives inside of you and has filled you with promise; to the woman that you’re about to marry and your unborn children (which you just saw a few moments ago); to your friends. And if you’re going to be a chaplain someday, to all of the soldiers and families that will be entrusted to your care, be faithful.’
“Thank you Brother Joe Schwartzentrooper, as you’ve gone on to your eternal reward, for those three words: teachable, pliable, faithful. May God do his work in you, may you prosper in all things, may He bless you as you seek to glorify and honor Him.
“I am so very proud to be here today. I am so thrilled to see the diversity that exists in this university. And I am honored to be your speaker today and now just simply, humbly ask this of you: As you think of this day, would you continue to pray for us? Not only pray for our nation but pray for the men and women who wear the uniform and the chaplains who care for their soul. May the Lord, Jesus Christ bless you and keep you. Amen.”