- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Text: Exodus 32:24
This address was presented at the opening convocation of the academic year 2003-2004. While faculty, staff, and a few upper class students were present, the principal audience was the freshman class.
Welcome to the class of 2007, welcome to students who have joined us from other colleges, universities and nations of the world. Welcome also to all who return to continue your academic journey at Concordia.
For those new to campus, you have experienced some busy days filled with both the expected – registration, try-outs and meetings – and the unexpected – trips to the mall, to the Dairy Queen, and perhaps to the homes of members of the faculty and staff.
You have all come to us with significant expectations. Based on data we collect from perspective students, we know that you have chosen this college because you expect to find friendly and helpful people here and I hope that you already have. Our research tells us that another of the major reasons why you have chosen Concordia is because of the quality of the academic program and the faculty.
Many of you tell us that you have also come expecting to find a community that is serious about matters of ethics, faith and spirituality. Indeed, social science research tells us that your generation is more serious about such matters than the generations preceding yours. You will find opportunities to explore these issues and express your faith here, for the assumption we make is that matters of faith, belief and spirituality are at the very core of human existence.
According to our research, these expectations are among the most prominent that you bring with you to this campus. These are expectations to which we are committed and we look forward to mutual engagement around them. But the thesis of my talk with you this morning is to suggest that you will find more than you expect on this campus, and I sincerely hope that one of those discoveries will be what I call “a holy restlessness.”
Let me illustrate “holy restlessness” with a couple of ancient, but well-known anecdotes. The first is from Plato’s Republic. On the way back from a festival in Athens, Socrates and his companions were discussing the question, “What is justice?” Is it helping your friends or hurting your enemies? Is it giving everyone what he or she deserves? As the conversation rolled on, folks got restless with Socrates because while he was always critiquing every person’s answer to the questions he raised, he would never venture his own opinion. At last one of those students, Thrasymachus said:
“Where do you get off Socrates, teasing people into offering definitions while you offer none, and then when they volunteer an answer, you just score points off of their attempts.”
Ah, the restlessness of unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions.
The other anecdote comes from the book of Genesis, the story of Jacob and Esau. Let me retell that story. Jacob had deceived his father and thus deprived his brother Esau of the inheritance that was coming to him. Many years passed and finally there was a showdown between the two brothers, each now with substantial holdings and armies. On the eve of the showdown, Jacob, racked by years of guilt and uncertainty over what he had done to his brother, lay down on the ground, and, we are told in Genesis, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” That man, it is clear, was God’s messenger, for in the morning he blessed Jacob, and in the days following, Jacob and Esau would be reconciled and Jacob would become the progenitor of a great nation. That night had been, for Jacob – literally – a holy restlessness.
Now the stakes will be different for you than they were for Thrasymacus and Jacob, but still, I wish for you, too, a holy restlessness. The first restlessness that you may encounter is in the relationship between your special academic interest and the liberal arts goals of this college. Many of you have an idea about a major or an eventual career and that is good. Surely the world out there needs increasing numbers of managers, teachers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, nurses, artists, social workers, writers, therapists and entrepreneurs of many kinds. This will incline you to focus on a major, on a career to dig deep to cover all of the bases. But the curriculum of this college creates – rather deliberately – a tension here, for it requires courses far outside of any specialty you may choose: courses in the sciences and arts, in religion and the humanities, and other disciplines that constitute what we call the liberal arts.
We mean, we intend, to create a restlessness between your specific interest and the core curriculum for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you plan to teach, for example, the Spanish language, you will discover that you will teach it more competently if you know something about Spanish history, Spanish art, Spanish religion and the list goes on. Or, a career in science or health science may be your goal, but in encountering vexing questions about the end of life, or cloning, or stem cells, you will need the help of ethicists and philosophers, economists and social scientists.
There is another reason why this restlessness is constructive. In a national study, employers, the people who hire accountants, managers, investors and human service people, identified the primary skills that they look for in perspective employees. Here is a sample of those skills: Respect for others, an appreciation for culture, loyalty, interest and integrity, civic values, a love for learning and problem solving skills. Such skills are at the heart of the liberal arts and they will make of your restlessness a constructive engagement.
A second source of restlessness is one of which most of you are already aware, either by experience or observation, and that is the restlessness that comes in trying to reconcile our need for unity as a people and the reality of our diversity. We are part of a global community, characterized by diversity of race, ethnicity, language, culture, religion and political and economic systems. We recognize diversity as a good. Think about our food: Italian pizza, French onion soup, Norwegian lefse, Mexican tortillas, Tanzanian ougaley, and Ghanan fu u, or chicken beer-ah-nay from Bangladesh. Similarly, think about our art, our music, our humor, our notions of excellence and hospitality. All are enriched by the influence of diverse traditions. As Pope John Paul II said, “To cut one’s self off from the reality of difference – or worse, to stamp out that difference, is to cut oneself off from the possibility of solving the depths of the mystery of human life.”
The other side of the balancing act is our need and desire for unity. For example, it is necessary that we have sufficient unity in our communities to secure our common good around such issues as education, safety, human services, and economic development. Again, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “We must overcome our fear of the future, but we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do it together.”
There you have the case for diversity and the case for unity. They are both essential and thus desirable, and that is the source of our restlessness. In Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in the subcontinent of Africa, and in Northern Ireland, diversity is a simmering cauldron that boils over regularly with catastrophic results.
In America, as we grow more diverse, we are tempted to grow more contentious and insecure. As one writer put it, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” A survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies a few years ago dramatized that reality. Only 21 percent of white Americans surveyed perceived that there is significant discrimination against black Americans, while half of all black Americans saw it the other way. Indeed, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Think about your perspective on unity if you or your people are being marginalized by the decisions of the duly elected. “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
There is indeed a restlessness as we seek to reconcile the richness and reality of diversity with our longing for, and the necessity of, unity. In our college community we hope that restlessness will move you to thoughtfulness and to responsible action. Sharon Daloz Parks, a noted writer and educator, has written about the prerequisites for dealing with this restlessness. “It will take,” she said, “an environment in which there is trust and respect and commitment to the truth.” Second, she said it would require developing the capacity to see the world through the eyes of another, for in that we begin to see things whole. And third, it will require constructive encounters with others – with people distinctly different from us.
You will find opportunities to appreciate and apprehend diversity here. In your classes you will encounter diversity in myriad forms. Urban and global study experiences will provide another opportunity to shape your perceptions, to shape who you are, and in effect, to change “who we are.” Lectures, concerts and festivals will feature the diversity of the world. In the life of this campus community, you will have opportunities to live together, to work together for our common good today and the common good of the world tomorrow. And the word is that your “millennial generation” is already both equipped and inclined to build community on this campus and beyond it.
Let me describe a third source of restlessness, the restlessness we find in the tension between suffering and hope. We live in a world full of inequities. Ours is a thriving economy for which we are grateful, but in America, the wealthy are doing much better than those who are poor -- progress is very unequal. For example, in 2001, ten percent of our population lived below the poverty level, as did 16 percent of our children in this, the wealthiest nation in the world. Does that make you restless?
Billions of dollars are being spent on exotic medical initiatives, including artificial hearts, kidneys, knees and spinal disks – while at the same time, millions cannot afford minimal healthcare. To be specific, we spend 16 percent of our gross national product on healthcare – by far the highest percentage in the developed world -- but one-sixth of our population is without health insurance. Does that make you restless?
One point two billion people in the world live in poverty, but in the United States, we spend seven billion dollars a year on video rentals, $20 billion on jewelry, $24 billion for alcohol, but only $4.4 billion for global development assistance. Does that make you restless?
Well, let’s put a face on all this data. A story in Newsweek this summer introduced Henry Kiiaka, an 18-year-old Ugandan with a high school education and a job earning $30 a month keeping books for a farmer. He sported a broad smile and a bright yellow button-down shirt. According to the Newsweek writer, “despite his cheerful manner, Henry is no stranger to pain. He lost his father as a child, and his mother died of AIDS three years ago leaving him to care for his four younger siblings. Two of his three teenage sisters still refuse to admit that HIV-AIDS has touched their family, but Henry doesn’t have the luxury of denial. His half-brother, 10-year-old Ronnie, is living with HIV – and as the head of the household, he is the boy’s only lifeline. “Sometimes I have times alone,” Henry confides while sitting with the downcast child at the pediatric clinic. “I have one or two or three drops of tears.” Does the story of Henry make you restless?
Suffering and inequity, the case is easy to make. And it should make us restless, more than that – it may leave us distraught and enraged. But what of hope? Where is it born and how is it nurtured? Hope is shaped by empathy, by our awareness of the inequities, by our sorrow for the victims and by our desire to be of help. And hope is informed by knowledge, which is what this place is about. We know that misguided, misdirected mercy and ineffective responses may be destructive. If informed action is essential, then academic excellence and our good work on this campus is prerequisite. But we need more than knowledge. We also need the conviction of faith -- faith in a God who stands with the oppressed, who heals the sick and feeds the hungry, and who calls us to reach out to our neighbor. In the words of theologian William Barclay, “The Christian hope is the hope that has seen everything and endured everything and has still not despaired, because it believes in God.”
That conviction is what makes our restlessness “holy.” That conviction is the source of our hope, and that conviction leads us to action, to using our knowledge in the construction of helpful response. These years your primary agenda is knowledge, but it is not your exclusive agenda. You will find extensive opportunities to act out your hope: in this community, where there are homeless people in need of food and hospitality; where there are children in need of friendship and recognition; and where there are elderly in need of comfort and company. There will be many opportunities for your hope to take on the flesh and blood of good and helpful deeds for your neighbor, and thus the restlessness of suffering leads to the embodiment of hope.
I am confident that you will find what you expect in your Concordia years – good people, excellent teaching and quality education. I hope that you will find also the holy restlessness of which I have spoken today. What makes it holy? It is made holy in part because of the vision of this college, which calls you to serve God and the world and prepares you to do that. And it is also made holy by God who calls us to deal with the restlessness we find in the world and in ourselves.
Jacob wrestled with uncertainty about his future, wrestled with his anxieties and in the course of it, he wrestled with God. When he awoke, he was blessed and moved on to do God’s work. May you be blessed with such a restlessness, with such a calling and with such fulfillment in your life. Amen.