Baccalaureate Sunday

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster           Presbyterian Church

June 1st was Baccalaureate Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to celebrate the university and high school graduations of some of our members.[1]

The Sermon

The sermon, “What’s Next for Me?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen was primarily addressed to the new graduates, but its message had meaning for everyone. He emphasized “the metaphor of journey, or pilgrimage, to understand Christian life.”

“The next steps you take on your pilgrimage through life do not have to be definitive. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead. Some will be delightful surprises; others, painful disappointments.”

Hart-Andersen, using his own life as an example, said, “Only after multiple false starts did I finally begin to pay attention to the nagging sense that God had other ideas for my life. It was, for me a matter of feeling ‘at home.’ That became a test for me: did I feel at home in a given occupation? Even if I was good at it, that didn’t prevent me from feeling like a stranger on a particular path. And if I felt like that, I moved on. Only later did I understand that God was at work in those twists and turns.”

“It may not always have been obvious to you, but God has been your companion along the way. Sometimes God may not have felt present to you, or maybe you went through times where you felt abandoned by God. But, the journey is long and we are people of faith. We believe God is the Guide. It may seem as if we’re on our own, but in this we trust: God is on the pilgrimage with us.”

“Scripture is replete with accounts of people trying to sort out which way their path is taking them. The Bible is the story of God’s people trying to find their way. Sometimes it’s clear; at other times, it’s not.”

“Think of the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. That was one, long search for the way forward . . . . The dream of freedom turned into something that felt a lot like a nightmare. . . . They forgot about God’s promise; [instead] they made a new, little god they could manage, a golden calf. They were grasping at anything to find some sense of clarity in their lives.” [Exodus 32:1-9.]

“[W]hen Jesus ascends to heaven . . .[He] tells his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit descends on them. They return to Jerusalem, go into an upper room, and settle in together until the time is right. . . . [They wait.] Their waiting involves prayer. They’re not passive in their hope of the promise fulfilled. Prayer is active waiting in anticipation of divine response, active trusting that God is listening. Prayer helps on the journey. Their waiting involves watching. They pay attention to the signs around them, looking for glimmers of the promise, “the trailing wisps of glory.” Their waiting is done together, in community.” [Acts 1:1-14.]

“What’s next for me is a question aimed at vocation . . . . Every one of us ought to be asking the same question of our own pilgrimage in life: what’s next? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for me at this point in my life?”[2]

“We Presbyterians are known to emphasize the vocation of each person. It begins with John Calvin who argues that everyone has a vocation, not only those called into ministry. Everyone has a role to play in the community, in business, in education or medicine or industry or technology or the military or science or public service or _____ – you fill in the blank.”

“Calvin views every occupation as an opportunity to excel, and in our excelling, we glorify God. All human work, Calvin writes, is capable of ‘appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.’ . . . For Calvin it’s the person that matters, the person, not the job.”

“In his view, people are not called by God out of the world, in order not to sully themselves with ordinary life, but rather, people are called by God into the world, right into the mundane stuff by which we make our living. And there, right there, in the everyday challenges of the jobs we do, God is found, and God can be glorified in what we do, no matter what it is.”[3]

“The Israelites cowering in fear in the wilderness and the followers of Jesus huddled together in that upper room struggled with what was next for them. They wondered if God had given up on them; some of them gave up on God.”

“Each of us is tempted to wonder the same thing when the way forward is not clear, or when it’s littered with challenges that seem to overwhelm, or when it leads into darkness that offers little respite.”

“But those who wait for God’s promise, even if it takes forty years, will not be disappointed. Light will illumine the path. The way forward will be clear. We will find it together, trusting that the Spirit will meet us on the way. “

What’s next for me? We need only open our eyes, take a step in trust, and then another, and another, and another. We will discover what God’s future holds for us.”

Choir’s Anthem

The sermon’s emphasis on pilgrimage was echoed in the choir’s anthem for the day: The Road Not Taken with music by Randall Thompson and the words from Robert Frost’s poem by the same name:[4]

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

========================

[1] The bulletin for this worship service is available online.

[2]A number of posts to this blog have discussed the religious notion of vocation.

[3] The notion of God calling us into the world was also embraced by poet Christian Wiman.

[4]The Road Not Taken” is one of seven Frost poems in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, a piece for mixed chorus and piano composed by Thompson in 1959 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Frost (1874-1963), who had known Thompson and admired his music, had lived for many years. Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works. A colleague said “Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Wiman’s “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Christian Wiman
Christian Wiman

 In 2006 at age 40 Christian Wiman conducted a retrospective examination of his life in his essay, Gazing Into the Abyss, American Scholar (Summer 2007).[1]

This post examines that essay and other writings by Wiman, now a 48-year-old writer and Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.[2]

 Gazing Into the Abyss

He grew up in a “very religious household” of his Southern Baptist parents in West Texas who held “the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”

In his late teens (while a student at Washington & Lee University) Wiman rebelled against his religious upbringing and stopped attending any church. This rebellion lasted for more than 20 years or until he was in his late 30’s.

After graduating from college, he began a career as a poet. Indeed, poetry became “the central purpose of his life” for almost 20 years, or until he was 36 years old. Looking back on that period, Wiman can see “how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination“ and “how deep and persistent my existential anxiety” was. Although he rejects the notion that poetry does or should replace religion, Wiman admits that “poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me.” Indeed, the one constant he now sees in his own poetry is God or “His absence.” (In a subsequent interview he said, “my refusal to admit [God’s] presence—underlies all of my earlier work.”)

Then three “shattering” events occurred in his life: one, of “necessity;” the second, of “glory;” and the third, of “tragedy.”

In 2002, at age 36 he encountered the event of necessity or despair. He stopped writing poetry. This was a conscious decision because he told himself at the time that he had “exhausted one way of writing.” Now he believes the “deeper truth” is that he was exhausted. The connection he had felt between word and world “went dead.”

Nearly simultaneously, however, his “career in poetry began to flourish” as he “moved into a good teaching job,” which he left in 2003[3] to become the Editor of the Poetry journal (which he held for the next 10 years); and found a publisher for his previous work. However, “there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.”

In about 2003, he encountered the event of “glory,” meeting a woman and falling in love with her. He recalls “color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly [erodingly?] alive.” He continues, “I was completely consumed” and “for the first time in my life, [I felt] like I was being fully possessed by being itself.” He now had “a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel, rootedness.”

This glorious state of love prompted a longing for divinity. Wiman and his lover started to pray –“jokingly” and “awkwardly” at first and then “with intensifying seriousness and deliberation”—by naming each thing they were thankful for and praising “the thing we could not name.” On Sundays they half-jokingly entertained the idea of going to church, and on “the morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue” (4th Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago?), but did not enter due to his resistance.

In any event, in 2004 when he was 38 years old, the two of them were married.

In 2005, on his 39th birthday, the third event—the one of “tragedy”—occurred. He was diagnosed with an “incurable cancer in my blood.” Christian and his wife “sat on the couch and cried, . . . mourning the death of the life we had imagined with each other.”

Over the next year, they found themselves going to church and discovering “where and who we were meant to be.” He also remembers the walks they took after church and the “moments of silent, and what felt like sacred, attentiveness . . . to: an iron sky and the lake [Lake Michigan] so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe [constant agitation] of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.” This was “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.” (These experiences also constituted a thorough rejection of his childhood religious belief that one had “to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”)

By “some miracle I do not find this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, . . . for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope.” This is a hope for “a ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.” [4]

“To find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss,” and according to Friedrich Nietzsche, “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

“I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love.” Our “intuitions” of grace, eternity and a love that does not end “come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing.” Faith, therefore, “is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”

Here Wiman draws upon a favorite metaphor of Simone Weil: two prisoners are in adjacent solitary confinement cells and communicate using taps and scratches on the wall between them. Weil says, and Wiman concurs, this is like the wall that separates us from God. Wiman concludes his essay, “the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is . . . this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone.” Now he constantly is “trying to get as close to this wall as possible . . . [and] listening with all I am.”

Subsequent Writing

9780374216788.jpg

In the “Preface” to his latest book– My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013) [5]—Wiman referred to readers’ reaction to the “Abyss” essay.[6] He said this reaction made him realize there was “an enormous contingent of thoughtful people . . . who are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion . . . [but] feel the burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.”

This realization prompted him to write essays or meditations “to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question—the real difficulty– is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?”

Kathleen Norris, another contemporary author of religious/spirituality books, says that My Bright Abyss “reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.” She adds, “With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks ‘a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.’”

My Bright Abyss is now on my iPad to be read.

Conclusion

Wiman’s essay reminds us all of the importance of periodically examining your own life. For him this task is assisted by the discipline of writing. I share this belief, and some of my blog posts attempt to do this although without the felicitous vocabulary and style of Wiman.

Like Wiman, I grew up in a religious home although not as fundamentalist as his. Like him, I abandoned religious belief and practice during my college years, and my time in the spiritual desert, like his, lasted for about 20 years. During this period, my “central purpose” was lawyering, which in some ways was similar to his focus on poetry. My reclamation of a religious and spiritual life, however, was not precipitated by “shattering” events like Wiman, but rather by an inner emptiness and a sense that the secular world did not have all the answers to life’s problems.

I share Wiman’s belief that the language and forms of much of contemporary American religion leave much to be desired, but I have found a church–Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church–that, in my opinion, speaks to the world as it is and has become my spiritual home as I have shared in posts to this blog.

Moreover, Westminster recently was host to a national conference of the “NEXT Church” movement that seeks “to foster relationships among God’s people:sparking imaginations;connecting congregations; offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.” To that end,“Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace, NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections, celebrating emerging leadership and innovation, and working with congregations and leaders to form and reform faith communities.”

==========================================

[1] I first learned about Wiman and the “Abyss” essay at the June 8, 2014, “Virtues and Values” adult education class at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[2] My review of Wiman’s essay also draws upon the following: Wikipedia, Christian Wiman; Yale Univ. Institute of Sacred Music, Christian Wiman; Bill Moyers, Poet Christian Wiman on Faith , Love, and Cancer (Feb. 23, 2012); Jeter, Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World’s Top Poetry Magazine, Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2013);  Yezzi, Cries and Whispers, W.S.J. (April 19, 2013), ; Krista Tippett, Christian Wiman—A Call to Doubt and Faith, and remembering God (May 23, 2013) (includes audio of Wiman reading some of his poems); Kathleen Norris, Faith Healing, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2013); PBS, Christian Wiman Interview (Oct. 25, 2013), ; Stimpson, Review of Christian Wiman’s ‘My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Huff. Post (Mar. 24, 2014); Domestico, Being Prepared for Joy: An Interview with Christian Wiman, Commonweal (April16, 2014).

[3] Wiman has been a Visiting Professor of English at Northwestern University, which I suspect is the teaching position he references in the essay; the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University; and Visiting Scholar at Lynchburg College, all before assuming his current position at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.

[4] Presumably this a reference to 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

[5] His other recent books are Hard Night (2005); Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007); and “Every Riven Thing” (2010). This Fall “Once in the West,” a poetry collection, will be published.

[6] The “Abyss” essay was retitled as “Love Bade Me Welcome” and published in his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.