Life Together in a New Day

Joy.

If you know the hymn, “Listen, God is calling,” you know that “joy” is the final word of the refrain. This was the hymn we sang after my presidential address and the responses this Saturday, and two young members of our community, Musa and Imani Mhanga, made it very special. They are the children of our student Ruthie and her husband Bariki, who were leading the assembly through the hymn. We weren’t sure if the two boys were going to sing, and in the beginning, it seemed like they weren’t—I was up at the front, so I couldn’t see them, and I definitely couldn’t hear them.  However, as the hymn went on, something wonderful happened: the boys gained confidence and started to sing—louder and louder with each refrain, until by the end, their young voices filled the sanctuary, lingering on that final word, “joy.”

It was absolutely delightful, and, for me, it perfectly symbolized the mood and experience of the entire day: “joy”—not just said, not even just sung, but shouted: JOY!!

As I have said to a few people these last few days, I find myself in the unusual position of being at a loss for words as I try to describe and sum up the experience of the inauguration.

In my communication to the Seminary community yesterday, this is some of what I said:

Wow.

That is what I heard all day on Saturday, consistently; some version of “Wow!,” from all of our guests for the inaugural events. They were wowed by the hospitality and cheerful welcome they received, beginning with the many efficient student drivers. They were wowed by the regal installation eucharist. And most of all, they were wowed by our joyous embodiment of life together in Jesus Christ.

I can’t begin to tell you how deeply grateful and honored I feel to have been called to lead this seminary community, and how inspired I am for the myriad ways you showed up, and the effort, time and good humor you dedicated to Saturday’s events.

I am particularly grateful to Professor Jan Schnell, who thoughtfully organized all aspects of our eucharistic worship, and made sure that the service glorified God and manifested the joyous, communal ethos of Wartburg Seminary.

[And here, I just have to say what an amazing service it was—so many community members participated, including a young daughter of a faculty member and a young daughter of a student who distributed the bread for communion; and four young musicians—again, daughters/niece/nephew of a faculty member—who played in a cello quartet. Those young people were inspiring.]

Wartburg Seminary community, I couldn’t be prouder to be your president, and there is nowhere else in the church I would rather be than here with you.

All of that is true, and yet somehow, it still doesn’t say enough for me. The way so many community members stepped up with enthusiasm and energy, and gave so freely of their time and effort was amazing; and this is especially true of the students who assisted in every capacity, every aspect of the day, even in the midst of classes and fieldwork. Trust me when I say that the future church is in excellent hands; our students are phenomenal! It was so clear that the whole day was about Wartburg Seminary, first and foremost, and only secondarily about me; and that was exactly how it should have been.

Yes, I had friends and family members there—and, of course, it was really meaningful to have so many loved ones to celebrate with me. But additionally, we had the three past Wartburg presidents there, honoring the continuity of Wartburg’s history and mission as each one of them handed along the Wartburg medallion until it finally rested on my shoulders; and plenty of bishops, pastors, alums, donors and other ecclesial partners to honor Wartburg’s broad and deep church connections.

In my address that afternoon, the theme was “Life Together in a New Day,” and I shared my vision for Wartburg Seminary’s distinctive embodiment of the robust “life together” that God desires for all of God’s children—and the critical role the church is called to play in today’s society as a “repairer of the breach,” in the words of Isaiah 58. Craig Nessan read a passage from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and I referenced Bonhoeffer’s description of the seminary at Finkenwalde–and both the struggles and the joys of their “life together.” There are resonances there with our life together today, I think. This is an excerpt from the conclusion of my address:

There is a star on the map of the world marking a stone castle in a small city on the banks of a big river that every single member of the Wartburg community all around the world calls home. At Wartburg, we belong to each other, because we belong to Christ; and through Christ, to the wider church and the wider world.

Beloved siblings in Christ, I am here to tell you: God is at work in and through Wartburg Theological Seminary changing the world, transforming the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Amidst our deep and wide societal divides, amidst fears of church decline and irrelevance, and amidst zoom fatigue and clergy burnout, God’s good news is the only news that can build us up and draw us together.

In the face of all the daunting forces bombarding the church in our time, God’s resounding “yes” overcomes all human “no’s” and even our “maybes.” As it always has and always will, the gospel is transforming the world. We at Wartburg Theological Seminary—and you, in partnership with us—are actively participating in this transformation as the Holy Spirit leads and empowers us all—here, there, all around the world—to embody a beautiful, motely, joyous life together, in this new day.

 There were two responses to my address in the afternoon, both of which were eloquent and powerful, and I am so grateful to my colleagues Troy Troftgruben and Winston Persaud for adding their resonance and emphasis to my own vision for Wartburg‘s “life together.” One of the comments that Troy made has stayed with me, and I want to share it here as well. He took the metaphor of “place” and enhanced it with the metaphor of “way.” He said:

“…’life together’ in community is a ‘way’, not a place….however much this castle may feel like home, the distinctive community of Wartburg Theological Seminary is anchored, not to a building, but a ‘way’—a way of being, a pattern of life, a spiritual practice of intentional community.”

Isn’t that fabulous? I think his point is so important, especially in this day when some congregations are thinking about selling buildings or even closing.  Yes, place is definitely important [“love your people, love your place,” Craig Nessan is fond of saying]—but place is never more important than people.

Ok—I’m almost done: just one more thing to say.

My favorite comment came at the dinner after the inaugural address, at the end of the full day of events. One of our friends said that my description of Wartburg‘s embodiment of life together was so much more meaningful to him because he had actually experienced it at the service of installation. That experience gave him a vivid appreciation of what I was talking about, and it was a specific, compelling instantiation of who we are at Wartburg.

As I said in my address, here at Wartburg, “life together” is not just a slogan or a catchphrase.  Instead:

“It is, in fact, an identity statement; a substantive declaration of who we are in response to what we have received through God’s grace in Jesus Christ; it is our “yes” to the ongoing call of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission for the church and the world.”

The whole day simply could not have been better, and I am grateful for all that has been and even more for all that is yet to come.

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