- 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
Texts: Psalm 104:1-4; Hebrews 11:1-4a, 8, 11, 24-25, 29-30, 12:1-2; Matthew 28:16-20
Concordia is a college of the plains and prairies, so it is appropriate that we begin this day with a story from that venue. Professor and seminary president T.F. Gullixson was born on the frontier, a son of pioneer immigrants. He wrote about those pioneers in a book titled, In the Face of the West Wind. The title reflects the fact that on the western frontier the prevailing wind is from the west. Gullixson told a story of his mother as she was leaving her Wisconsin home for the western frontier. The first night out they crossed the Mississippi River with team and wagon and made camp just into Minnesota. Sitting by the campfire, she spent the night with her face to the east, to the homes from which she had come – first Norway, then Wisconsin. She recalled that those were homes with the certainty of family, schools, church, doctors, and of neighbors. It was a predictable and secure life.
She also thought ahead as she sat by the campfire. On the west side of the river, the frontier to which they were headed, lay uncertainty, strangers, untracked land, no schools, no church, and doctors only few and far between. But she had a vision, a vision of new opportunities, of sweeping prairies with a limitless horizon and a big sky. It would be a place to build a new family, a new home, a new church, and new community. So she turned her face to the west wind.
Not many years later, Norwegian immigrants would gather up and down the Red River Valley of the North to think about their children, their church, their mother country and their future in a new land. Starting a college was their agenda, and a brick building on a prairie knoll south of Moorhead was the object of their eye. Everyone was starting colleges in those days so it wasn’t exactly a novelty. But something in their vision was – they wanted a college that would preserve the values of motherland and mother church, while at the same time, and with quality, prepare students for effective citizenship in a new land.
The breezes blew warmly from the western sky as life began for the new school with record numbers of students and glad exclamations of praise. But the west wind would blow hard and even cruelly as the years moved on. There would be a financial panic in 1893, which the college would survive with only a few minutes and a few dollars to spare. Persistent diphtheria epidemics would create both health and credibility problems for the new school. Faculty had divisive arguments about the nature of the curriculum. In the decade of the 1930’s, the mother church thought of closing two of its four colleges, and Concordia was not on the short list.
But the founders kept their faces to the west wind, and their names were Christiansen and Ness, Bogstad and Holte, Aasgaard and Nordlie, Nielson and Nobryn, and the list goes on. People from many walks of life and persuasions, but people of common vision turned their faces to the west wind. They cleared the forests, broke the land, and made the prairies bloom. They mortgaged their farms, created a school, and watched their children grow in wisdom and stature. They were God’s own people riding on the wings of the wind.
So today this cloud of witnesses surrounds us. Like Abraham they went out in faith not knowing the destination. They met the challenge of the west wind and found in themselves and their faith the gifts of pluck and courage, of vision and great hope, of calling and consolation. We have come today to praise the God of ages past and the firm foundation of present days. In these middle years of our college’s life, we pause to hear again God’s promise. But before we hear those words we consider the race that is set before us, the challenge of our west winds.
There is nothing mysterious about the calling whether we put it in individual or institutional terms. “Make disciples” are the clear words of the morning’s gospel. Do it at home and away. Do it in your life and in your learning. “Sent Forth” is the theme of this centennial year. “Influence the affairs of the world” is the way we put it in the mission statement. In Martin Luther’s words, do it with your life, do in vocation where work and play are of a single, serving piece. Do it in society by making peace and being just, by feeding the hungry and healing the sick, by renewing the creation and redeeming the culture.
The calling is familiar but the challenges of the west wind are ever changing, and we must every day size up the possibilities. There are winds of violence, especially against the poor, the young and women. Only consider the horrible truth that one in four women will be a victim of rape in her lifetime, and the number subjected to symbolic violence is simply countless. There are winds of suffering, where 32 million live in poverty, and 20 percent of our children are among them. Despite the highest levels of employment in history, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. There are winds of crisis among the young. A report by the Search Institute identified 30 indicators of at-risk behaviors among the young including alcohol and drug use, antisocial behavior, depression and suicide. In the study it was discovered that 78 percent of all sixth through 12th-graders are involved in at least one of these risk behaviors, 56 percent in two or more.
These and other problems need attention. Voluntarism has stepped in to ameliorate illiteracy, poverty, homelessness and violence. But all of it barely bends the wind. We seem weary of well doing, and our corporate will is unable to cope with the winds of crisis blowing across our land.
One looks for a cause, and the explanations are various. A recent Newsweek feature says we’ve lost confidence in the great American myth that we can solve any problem. Columnist Meg Greenfield says that our country “has only a most tenuous sense of national community,” and this is at the heart of our domestic impasse. But the reader of the stories of the children of Israel; the Galilean carpenter; and the missionaries to Ephesus, Corinth and Rome would say the cause is deeper than that – it is a crisis of soul. The powers and principalities of our day, however, one may name them, are always in combat for our soul – to neutralize it at least, to enslave it at most. The key to a new world order at home or abroad is in the renewal of our souls by the grace of God, the laying “aside of every weight and sin that clings so closely,” the reconciliation of our minds with the mind of God. And people so restored may begin to build an earthly kingdom of peace and righteousness.
These are the winds that blow in our society, and there are winds that blow in the church. The church is no longer the majority voice in our society. We live in a world dominated by the secular, not the sacred, which makes it essential that the church find its voice. In an incisive commentary on the contemporary church, theologians William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University tell us the church has become so tied up with society that it has lost its authentic voice. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the church’s agenda from a political party platform. The church, they say, is a colony of one kingdom, the kingdom of God, in the middle of another, the world. So we are, in that sense, “resident aliens.” The task of the church is to be the church, to proclaim its distinctive gospel message and to live it out, first within the church and then beyond. The task of the church, they say, is not to make deals with the social order, but to tell the truth!
There are still some small signs that this call to central mission is being heard. Polls tell us that the overwhelming majority of people in this society have a religious interest if not a religious habit. There are encouraging signs that baby boomers are returning to a church life that calls them to authentic religious commitment. There are signs that people unfamiliar with our mainline traditions are open to a gospel of grace and the ministry of personal justice that accompanies it. And increasingly, intellectuals are acknowledging the limits of secular rationalism and the legitimacy of spiritual knowledge. Lyle E. Schaller, authority on church matters, sees the real possibility for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to be a church clear about mission and focused on evangelism. Maybe, just maybe, this struggling giant of a new church can make a turn if we keep our eye on the gospel. Indeed, the frontiers are beckoning the church to move, to dare, to evangelize the world.
West winds are blowing in our colleges, too. The issues are numerous so let me mention only two. An important issue to both society and its colleges is the issue of pluralism. E Pluribus Unum was the rallying cry of this nation, but can we be plural without losing unity? Pluralism is a fact of life, a natural tendency, and as a single dynamic in a society it would drive us apart like a centrifuge. Unity, on the other hand, takes work, and it is not static. It must be reshaped by conversation and commitment among the diverse elements of a society. This college with its immigrant history has some unique insights to bring to the process. The founders wanted to both preserve tradition and contribute to the greater good of the new land. They succeeded, admirably. To be sure, the strategies cannot be the same today as a century ago, but the principles of mutual respect and the cultivation of unifying values provide a durable model. This college brings to this process a special integrating vision of a reconciled world and a reconciling God. This college also brings to the task its rather unique experience of community in which “hearts in harmony” is not a slogan but a living experience.
The winds of intellectual change blow through the academy these days as well. The old academic walls of separation and specialization are crumbing before the winds of medical and environmental crisis, political and economic change. The academy is in search of new paradigms of connection and wholeness, of new ways of understanding. We are involved in the search for truth about all things under heaven, and above, too. This college of the Lutheran tradition is as fully committed to the quest for truth as were Melanchthon and Luther when they stood boldly before prelate in Wittenberg, prince and provost, long centuries ago. Furthermore, this college brings to the academy a worldview of unity and coherence.
The challenge of the west wind is also and often, intensely personal. Crises of confidence, of well-being and of relationship are common in a highly technological and competitive culture. Thorns of the flesh and spirit are numerous and real among us. These are some of the challenges of the west wind that are blowing today in the lives we live, the world we would influence, the society we would change.
It is tempting to avoid these challenges, to go with the wind. It would have been easy for the founders of the college to go with the wind. When Rasmus Bogstad faced an overcrowding problem in the early 1900’s, he might have said, “We’re full and that is it.” Instead, he had the audacity to literally connive the Board of Regents into building the grandest New Main in the region. President J.A. Aasgaard and friends might have been content with a very successful academy in the college’s third decade. And Paul J. Christiansen and his colleagues could have settled for a mixed chorus and a marching band. It is tempting to go with the wind in any age.
As individuals and institutions, it is tempting to go with self-interest instead of agape. I need not repeat the litany of data on the ascendancy of self-interest in the modern culture. The legal system reflects it in the emphasis on individual rights as over against community responsibility. The political system embodies it in campaigns for public office, which excuse slander in the name of winning results. Commerce justifies pornography and violence in the name of freedom of expression. If we go with the wind of self-interest, we will fail the mission of the gospel and this college.
Conformity is another ill wind. Life is a constant struggle for most of us between the authentic voice of faith within us, and the call of the crowd. It is tempting for colleges of the church to conform to the vision and values of their public counterparts. Avery Dulles, distinguished Roman Catholic theologian, said recently that he feared that Roman Catholic colleges and universities were on the slippery slope to secularism, that they would lose their distinctive vision and voice much as had the colonial colleges established by the church. It is true, of course, that the mission of a college like ours needs close tending, because the winds of conformity run strong. The ill winds blow. They are out there. To go with these winds is to deny our inheritance of faith and to turn our back on God’s grace.
In such circumstances we do well to remember the God of the west wind, who promises to be with us always, to the close of the age. Ours is a no-nonsense God, a God who knows about the challenges of the west wind and has faced those winds – poverty, injustice, doubt, temptation, loneliness – all of it. God knows the west wind better than we and that is why God has not left us to face it alone. In the west wind we always find God’s greatest gift, the gift of grace in the person of Jesus Christ. A gift from which nothing ever separates us – not bad grades or bad behavior, not career failure or unbelief, not intemperance or death itself. Best of all, it is a gift that frees us, that enables us. It permitted the saints of old to close the mouths of lions and quench the raging fires. It enabled the saints of our family to build a college on the prairie against the odds. Because so great a cloud of witnesses surrounds us, we may lay aside the weight of wind and sin and press on.
We have been given the gift of community, Christ’s own body, with diversity and unity, many parts and many talents knit together in one spirit. You can’t escape that feeling here. Family is the metaphor we have so often used to describe this place. In the early years, Helga Fjelstad fed students on a diet of Norwegian cookies and loving care. In the middle years there was Nels Mugaas, who made large and small loans to students in need. In these latter years, her classmates would rise as one when Judy Siegle crossed the stage under her own power to receive her diploma at Commencement. Concordia – meaning “hearts together” – this is what rallies us together in remembrance and renewal. It is God’s gift to us in the face of the west wind.
God has given us the gift of perseverance. In the days of old, God gave J.N. Brown the sheer persistence to lead the college through the valley of the shadow of the Depression. In those same days the God of the west wind gave Carl B. Ylvisaker the words to envision this place as a “college of destiny.” In the transition time of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the God of the west wind gave Joe Knutson strength to keep the college’s eye on its mission.
Each of us can name a cloud of witnesses in our hearts today as did the writer of Hebrews 2,000 years ago. The names will be different, but the place of these people in our lives is the same – founders in the faith, saints for all seasons, sent forth to be God’s people. Because so great a cloud of witnesses surrounds us, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Let us turn our face to the west wind! Amen.