GLIMPSES OF THE FACE OF GOD: A SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(Andiron Talk at Pilgrim Place, Claremont, California)
Dwight W. Vogel, OSL May 3, 2017
My life is a quest for that Deep Mystery of the Transcendent beyond language but to which language must dare to point. Or, put another way, I am a pilgrim seeking to be open to the glimpses of the face of God made known to me. As Emily Dickinson writes:
He was my host –
he was my guest,
I never to this day
if I invited him could tell,
or he invited me.
My paternal grandparents came from Germany as children; my Dad didn’t speak English until he went to school. Nevertheless, he was the first person in that northwest Missouri farming community to graduate from high school. After completing college and seminary, he was appointed to a church in Ponca City, Oklahoma, two states away. He was single and knew no one there. He would be a stranger in a strange land. His mother gathered the family in the living room and read Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth . . . He will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” It became the family psalm. Every time the family parted, we would read that psalm and sing
(sung) “God be with you til we meet again.”
In the German pietism of my family of origin, a personal God was very real. Jesus was savior and Lord. Family life was permeated with prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the songs of faith. My first glimpses of the face of God were nourished there.
My mother was an Erffmeyer, a prominent family of ministers, missionaries, and educators in the Evangelical Church. Together, my father and mother ministered during the depression years there in Oklahoma. In those days, women in that denomination couldn’t be ministers, but a minister’s wife was expected to be an unpaid partner in ministry, and mother filled that expectation diligently.
was born right there in the parsonage. I was an instrument baby and my skull still carries the indentations. It was clear my mother would need help. Dad called his sister, my beloved Aunt Esther who took the train to Oklahoma. The first night there she took me into her arms and into her heart and nurtured me with a love that never let go. With prevenient grace, before I had words or thoughts, I glimpsed the merciful, accepting, never ending love of the face of God. Until she died at 103, Aunty Esther believed in me, cared for me, was always there for me, so I could know what it means to sing: (sung) “Great is thy faithfulness.”
One of my earliest memories is lying on the floor as my father shoveled coal in the basement, his voice coming up the furnace duct: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth. Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the sea, from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” Psalms and hymns were as much a part of my nurture as food and drink.
During the years of World War II, my father pastored in Topeka, Kansas. I began school at Lincoln Elementary. Most of my classmates were Mexican American or African American- – with only a very few of us being white. It was a microcosm of a wider world, one that seemed quite normal to me. Only in later life would I realize that I had taken my white privilege with me, with opportunities for learning most of my classmates wouldn’t have.
We moved to Abilene, Kansas, and while walking its streets with my Grandpa Erffmeyer, he said: “Dwight, you are the same age as I was when my father was elected presiding elder which is what they used to call district superintendents.” Dad was re-elected again and again, serving as a superintendent for 16 years. So I grew up in the district house there in Abilene.
Thus, my pastor during my growing up years was not my father, but Rev. Carl Platz. He taught three stimulating years of catechism during my middle school years. From him I learned that knowledge is not the enemy of faith but its friend, and that serious questioning is part of the faith journey.
These were glimpses of the face of a God who didn’t have to be protected from questions. Never did I hear “well, you just have to have faith” as an answer to a serious question
On my desk from junior high through graduate school was a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I will study and get ready and maybe my chance will come.” I spent time in both the school and public libraries where I found Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which was my introduction to philosophy. Four years of debate honed my ability to think and speak on my feet, and I began to envision a career in law and politics.
The guest speaker one year at our summer assembly was W. R. Montgomery, a national church executive I knew from work in the EUB Youth Fellowship. I told him why I thought I was being called to a career in law and politics. In retrospect, methinks I did protest too much!!
“Well, Dwight,” Monty said, “if that’s what God is calling you to do, that’s fine, but I think you may be misreading that call. You have the gifts for ministry, and I believe that’s who God is calling you to be.”
And then he prayed with me that I would be open to whatever path God called me to take. The next year at Summer Assembly I answered the call to “the ministry of the gospel.” It was the first of what I’ve come to call “God’s surprises,” or as Bonhoeffer puts it, being “interrupted by God.” In it I glimpsed the face of a God who lays claim on one’s life, giving it purpose and direction.
Three generations of my ancestors had attended North Central College and my parents and I had always assumed that’s where I would go. At my grandfather’s funeral, my great uncle Clarence, long time academic dean at North Central, asked me: “What do you want to study in college?” “Philosophy” came my quick response. His answer shocked me: “Then you should attend Westmar College and study with G. O. Thompson.” Westmar and North Central came from two different branches of what came to be the Evangelical Church and were usually considered competitors. Such was uncle Clarence’s esteem in the family that my parents never questioned my decision to attend Westmar.
In the fall of 1955 I went to Westmar College in LeMars, Iowa, a focus of my life for the next thirty years. Music was important, both academically and as an activity. I sang in both school and church choirs, was invited to direct the college choir in the conductor’s absence, and became the choir director at the local E&R church. I expanded my knowledge of literature and history and was introduced to the delights of art museums, a welcome addiction I have to this day.
Philosophy helped me ask questions I had never before considered. I moved away from a naïve evangelical belief. The Spirit had never made much sense to me, so I became a binitarian. But then I was left with a Christological problem. What was the value of Jesus’ obedience if it was all preprogramed “from the foundation of the world?” Could Jesus have chosen not to answer the call? I stopped going to church.
That didn’t last long. On Easter morning, it didn’t feel right not going to church, so I went. It didn’t solve my intellectual problems, but I did reclaim a home base from which to do my explorations. I came to believe that my problem was jettisoning the Holy Spirit in the first place. Spirit interpenetrates but does not manipulate. It was a rudimentary insight to be further developed but it enabled me to glimpse the face of God with a Trinitarian awareness.
I was introduced to Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers in one seminar on philosophical existentialism and to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead in another.
In the summer before my junior year, I worked as minister’s assistant in Topeka, Kansas. The first day I was to join the youth group working at the summer assembly grounds. As I drove in, a captivating young woman with eyes that sparkled like diamonds gave me a huge smile and waved a welcome. I fell deeply in love in a moment and was delighted to discover the feeling was mutual.
The pastor told me to work closely with the president of the youth fellowship who turned out to be Linda Jane Baker, the young woman with the smile. I did as instructed. We courted, discreetly we thought, but discovered later everyone knew. Only later would I realize how profoundly this glimpse of the face of God would permeate my life from then on.
In the fall of my senior year I experienced another of God’s surprise interruptions. President Kalas called me into his office and told me he wanted to nominate me for a Danforth Fellowship which would support my graduate work through to a Ph.D. “Then,” he said, “we want you to come back to Westmar and teach.”
“But Dr. Kalas,” I objected. “I’m called to the ministry.” “That’s what I’m talking about” he said. Reluctantly, I agreed to accept the nomination. The application came but I didn’t do anything with it. At Christmastime I told Linda I didn’t think I’d go to the trouble of filling it out. “There will be thousands of nominees from colleges and universities all over the country and they’ll give less than a hundred fellowships. I don’t think it’s worth the effort.” “Oh, why don’t you give it a try anyway” she said. “You write it and I’ll type it out. We’ll do it together.” And so we did.
I was amazed to be among the 200 some applicants invited for an interview. I took the bus to Omaha to be interviewed by Dr. Robert Rankin whom I later met here at Pilgrim Place. I was overwhelmed when I received the letter indicating I had been awarded one of the coveted fellowships.
So it was that Ralston-Purina, the food that stipends are made of, covered tuition, fees, books, travel, and living expenses for six years of graduate study. Because they believed the spouse of a professor should be educated, we discovered they paid for Linda’s tuition, too. There was the added benefit of stimulating conferences and dinner in the homes of friends of the fellow like Huston Smith, Samuel Miller, and Nels Ferré.
After my college graduation, Linda and I were married. It still amazes me that this wonderful woman chose me to be her life partner. Without question, she is God’s greatest gift to me and the one in whom I find most clearly glimpses of the face of God. And there were collateral blessings, too. Her mother Gladys was an amazing woman who showed us how to live and how to die, and her stepfather Marvin was deeply loved by all of us.
We headed off to the big city of Boston. We lived in a one room sixth floor apartment in the Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries Home for Indigent Students, on Yarmouth Street, sharing an unheated bathroom with 3 other couples. I began studies for a Master of Arts in philosophy at Boston University, following up my college interest in Karl Jaspers with a thesis on his philosophy of religion.
His recognition of the limits of knowledge with the truth lying beyond those limits shining through for just a moment, is the conceptual basis for my talking about “glimpses of the face of God.” And beyond the horizons of our conceptual schemes is what Jaspers calls “the Encompassing”—the Deep Mystery which is the foundation for our concepts, but never completely grasped by our minds.
Finding a church home was frustrating. And then, only a few blocks from where we were living, we found Trinity Episcopal Church on Copley Square, Phillips Brooks’ old church. The sermons by Theodore Parker Ferris were thoughtful and inspiring, the music marvelous, the worship with a depth and richness that was new to us, bringing new glimpses of the face of God.
Four couples who would be studying in Boston met at the Danforth Fellowship camp at Minnewanka and we got together for dinner monthly. Jim and Gloria Bishop were African-American and it was our first encounter with the problems of racism first hand. They invited us to join them in protesting the segregation at the Greyhound Bus Station, our first involvement in direct action. Some years later she would write asking us, “how can a moral person stay in the church?” Answering that question was one of the hardest letters we’ve ever had to write. It is a question that still haunts us and one to which we return again and again. But that too, I believe, was a glimpse of the face of God.
A few months into the semester, I realized that while one or two philosophy courses at a time was fun, a complete diet left me intellectually malnourished. What had been great explorations of the mind increasingly seemed like fruitless conceptual nitpicking that was unlikely to make the world a better place.
It became clear that philosophy was not my life calling. Perhaps graduate work was not for me after all. But I’d been taught to finish what I started so I never questioned finishing the degree. In the spring term, I took a course in philosophical theology with a guest professor, Nels Ferré. The Danforth program provided for a seminary year whatever field you were in. So I petitioned to do a seminary year at Andover Newton where Dr. Ferré was a faculty member.
Andover Newton proved to be a stimulating intellectual community unlike any other I was to encounter until Pilgrim Place. I soon realized that my problem was not graduate study but the field. I asked the Danforth Foundation to change my focus from philosophy to theology. The faculty was superb and my studies were rewarding. Studying with Ferré was everything I hoped for and more. He was a demanding teacher, but if you’d done your preparation, you could engage him in vigorous dialogue. His insistence on agape love as the dominant characteristic of the God revealed in Jesus Christ was a glimpse of the face of God which has been dominant in my theological journey. To recognize that God is not made in the image of my emotions, and that how I feel when I pray says something about me but not about God caused a fundamental shift in my understanding of prayer.
In D. M Baille’s God Was In Christ both my perplexities about the incarnation and my experience of falling in love came together. The problem lies in our making rigid alternatives that don’t correlate with experience—something I should have learned in my study of existentialism.
When I fell in love, on the one hand, it was something that happened to me, a gift from beyond myself. And yet I have never freely chosen anything more fully in my life. It is a paradox in which seemingly strict alternatives can both be true in experience. So Jesus could both freely choose and be directed by his Abba. It was a profound glimpse of the face of God.
Guest lecturers at Andover Newton were a never-ending source of new knowledge. Most memorable was an address by Martin Niemoller who had talked with Hitler several times and told us of the recurring nightmare he had in which Jesus came to him and said: “Martin, Martin, why didn’t you tell Adolf that I love him?”
I completed my seminary degree and joined the graduates processing down the hill as we sang the hymn written for Andover Newton’s commencements:
(sung), “through days of preparation, thy grace has made us strong.”
Linda had completed the last three years of her bachelor’s degree at Boston University but was only half way through her degree in Christian education at Andover Newton. Yet I am embarrassed to say that it never crossed either of our minds to stay on at Andover Newton for another year. Instead I chose to continue my studies at Garrett – Northwestern with Philip Watson, who was open to my writing my dissertation on Ferré’s theology.
So we moved to Evanston, Illinois, working toward a Ph.D. in theology, as well as studying New Testament, aesthetics and ethics. Studying with British Methodist theologian Philip Watson reinforced the work I had done with Nels Ferré, further building on Nygren’s understanding of God as Agape.
Watson’s unforgettable image was the difference between “I love me and want you” vrs. “I love you, receive me.” That is the way an invitational claim is laid on our lives and it was another glimpse of the face of God.
The Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches had just merged to become The United Methodist Church and Watson taught a course on the Wesleys. In John Wesley I discovered a theologian whose thinking, along with that of Bonhoeffer, would be foundational for me. And in Charles Wesley’s hymns I found rich appropriation and application of that theology. For both of them, self-giving love is such an important part of God’s nature that they could sing (sung) “thy nature and thy name is love.”
Along with a seminary intern, Linda and I worked on the staff of Wheadon United Methodist Church with Pastor Chuck Peterson, editor of the Methodists for Church Renewal journal Behold. He introduced us to the lectionary and an order of worship that followed the pattern of the early church reflected in The Apostolic Tradition, a pattern we had experienced in Trinity Church in Boston, and which remains the core of my approach to worship.
Along with this, it was his commitment to God as a God of Justice that profoundly affected us. When the invitation to come to Selma came, we all wanted to respond but decided to pool our money and buy one round trip bus ticket for Pastor Chuck. While he was eating in a Selma café, he heard a crowd noise just outside. He discovered Jim Reeb had just been murdered. Meanwhile back in Evanston, a wealthy benefactor came to the church and took the three electric typewriters he had given on permanent loan.
It’s uncanny how, week after week, the lectionary speaks to contemporary conditions. The Old Testament lesson I read to the half-empty church the next Sunday was from Malachi: “For our God is a refiner’s fire and he will purify.” It was so direct that only because it was the assigned reading for the day did I have courage to read it. The remnant congregation became deeply committed to social justice. It was a powerful glimpse of the face of God for me.
Linda’s father and David Fleming’s father had been boyhood friends. David had taken vows with the Society of Mary and was studying for a doctorate at the University of Chicago. His mother and Linda’s mother facilitated getting us together and David came for lunch. We connected right away—neither of us had ever had a substantive conversation across Protestant-Catholic lines with a theologically well informed person. At supper time we were still at the table, so Linda took the lunch things off the table and put supper on. Our ecumenical explorations opened up a very different glimpse of the face of God. David and I became life-long friends and he and Linda had been friends from childhood. It has been a rich and rewarding friendship.
The next chapter of our lives was twenty years on the faculty of Westmar College in LeMars, Iowa. I discovered teaching as learning, for the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. Linda guided my pedagogical development. I started teaching as I had been taught—namely through lectures. But the teaching-learning experience is better understood as a spark plug than a fuel line, so I moved increasingly from lecture to engagement in my educational method. They were exhilarating years of intellectual investigation, strengthened by interdisciplinary dialog among stimulating faculty colleagues.
I was asked to take responsibility for the Tuesday evening Vespers which was the liturgical chapel option. In preparation, I began reading and discovered a whole new world of liturgical scholarship. This shift of focus to liturgical and sacramental theology has persisted to today.
In teaching ethics, I had used the Viet Nam war as an example of listing the pros and cons of an issue, seeing both sides, and then taking an informed position. One afternoon as I was preparing a Vespers sermon, I had a crisis of conscience. If I was going to have any sense of integrity as a preacher of the gospel, I had to say what God gave me to say. When I returned home, Linda took one look at me and said “What’s happened to you?” “I had a word from the Lord,” I said, “and I’m going to have to preach it.”
(sung) “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
This very direct sermon landed me overnight in the middle of the anti-war movement in northwest Iowa, where such a position was widely seen as pro-communist. Realizing we were no longer Republicans, we changed our party affiliation. We entered the exciting world of Iowa caucuses and I found myself Democratic precinct caucus chair the very first time we attended a political caucus.
The college church had always had a large gifted choir but our first year in LeMars, the church hired a director who just didn’t work out. One Sunday, I looked back at the choir loft in the balcony and saw only the director and three other persons. “I can do better than that,” I told Linda. So I applied for the job.
Thus began nearly twenty years of music ministry with a choir that included many students, faculty and staff. At conferences of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, I ended up directing three age-group choirs along with the adult choir. Singing together opens us to dimensions of spirituality rhR continue to be the source of many of my glimpses of the face of God.
(sung) “When in our music God is glorified!”
In our first three years in LeMars, Linda and I became parents to three children. Our first son, Peter Jonathan, was adopted as an infant just before we moved from Evanston. Our third was our daughter Kristin Deborah. who was also a baby. The second was another of God’s surprise interruptions. Linda’s parents were with us after visiting relatives out here in California. Mark, the son of a cousin, was visiting his grandparents. “It’s too bad about Mark,” Linda’s mother said. “He’s such a nice boy but he’s been in so many different homes as a ward of the state; things are so bad in his own home.” We talked some more and then went to bed.
At 3 in the morning, Linda sat bolt upright in bed. “What’s wrong?” I said. “I think we should adopt Mark” she said. “I do too,” I said. And we went back to sleep. Now Mark was 14 and taking a 14 year old male is something one should enter into only “advisedly, discreetly, and in the fear of God!” But this was a God-incidence for us. He entered our family just before beginning 9th grade. As the president of the college told us when he graduated from high school “You know, you had no reason to expect things to have turned out with Mark the way they did.” But they did turn out very well, and we are grateful.
Our house was a block from the campus. One published announcement of a student activity said it would take place in the big red house with the smiling front door! If we were home and the lights were on, we could count on students dropping in, making music, discussing all manner of things until one of us would say “why don’t we go to bed so these folks can go home?” In fact, Ron and Lois Hines who will soon be moving to Pilgrim Place announced their engagement in our living room!
On the way to visit friends in Colorado one summer, we decided to stop in the Black Hills, camp for three days at Wind Cave National Park, and see Mt. Rushmore. We fell in love with this land, the Paha Sapa of the Lakota, stayed for ten days, finally making it to the Rockies. The next summer we went back and camped and explored the area more thoroughly. Several years later we bought nearly 4 acres of mountain meadow and forest where we spent a part of 45 summers at the place we call “The Birds’ Nest.” It is a thin place where glimpses of the face of God happen over and over again. (sung) “Take me back to the Black Hills, the Black Hills of Dakota, that beautiful Indian country that I love.”
We spent our first sabbatical at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Collegeville, Minnesota. In the Benedictine communities with the monks at St. John’s and the nuns at St. Ben’s we discovered the daily office which was to become central to both my scholarly and spiritual journeys, and I prepared my first book for publication: Psalms for Worship Today.
But another of ”God’s surprises” was waiting. We had expected to remain at Westmar all our professional life, but we discovered that Westmar was not all of life there was to be for us. The college was going in directions we could not support. We asked for an appointment to a local church where we could be in team ministry. I had come as a freshman in the fall of 1955, but in the spring of 1985 we moved on.
We were appointed to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Dubuque, Iowa, with its first meeting in 1833 said to make it the first congregation of any denomination in the state. It is a downtown church with a current building dating to the 1890’s.
The guilt letters in the arch over the nave reads “He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps,” a verse from our favorite family psalm. St. Luke’s has 108 Tiffany windows, including seven large ones in the sanctuary. But as their t-shirt proclaims: “If you think our windows are beautiful, you should meet our people!”
And they were—committed, compassionate, capable, ready and willing to engage in the ministry of all the baptized. The church is a people and they ministered to me even as I ministered to them.
The first Tiffany window you see when you enter the nave through its most used door is that of Jesus and the children. It affirmed the conviction Linda and I had that children are not just the church of tomorrow but a vital and necessary part of the church of today. My predecessor had been uncomfortable with children in worship and encouraged them not to be in the worshipping community. How could we make them know they were welcome? We decided Gus was the answer.
Meet Gustapher Gustavus Agoosis, given to me by my mother-in-law for Christmas—which tells you something about both her and me! On our first Sunday there we had Gus invite the young church to the front for our time with the children. They poured out of the pews to meet him. On the way out, they asked me over and over again “will Gus be here next Sunday?” That hadn’t been our intent, but recognizing a gift of the Spirit in our midst we said yes. So Gus was with us every Sunday and had a short column in every week’s newsletter, with a talented artist in the congregation providing a drawing of Gus that changed every week according to the topic. Youth would ask their parents “is the newsletter here? What does Gus have to say?” It was the best way to get any information to the whole congregation. At our farewell, there were three chairs: one for Linda, one for Gus and one for me!! We couldn’t have planned it, it came as a gift. Gus showed us glimpses of the face of God in the eyes of children.
We separate our professional life into three major chapters: twenty years at Westmar, three in Dubuque, and seventeen in Chicago. Yet, in terms of the depths of friendships and the extent of our experiences and our intellectual and spiritual growth, the Dubuque chapter is as important to us as are the other two. Our books contain phrases and ideas mined from conversations with friends there. As we were told: “when Dwight or Linda grab the paper napkin and start writing, you’ll probably end up in their next book!” Such friendships are glimpses of the face of God.
I saw a notice about the Order of Saint Luke and sent off for further information. Becoming part the Order is not like joining an organization. It involves vows which affect all of life, providing the way one lives out one’s baptism in mutual accountability and support with one’s brothers and sisters, seeking to live a sacramental life. It was both who I was and who I was called to be. Soon after taking vows, I attended a convocation of the Order. At the general chapter meeting, I said, “We need to develop resources for the daily office related to the liturgical year.” Abbot Michael responded, “That is an excellent idea. I invite you to answer the call to service by doing just that.” And so came another of those interruptions, as the daily office became the focus of both my scholarly work and my spiritual journey.
Another of God’s surprises was on the horizon. We returned to the parish intending to live out the rest of our ministry there. But already in the first year at St. Luke’s, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary began courting Linda to come to their faculty in Christian education. In the second year, that invitation was intensified. In consultation with our beloved bishop, Rueben Job, we decided that was where God was calling her to go. But despite numerous inquiries, there was no job for me.
“I just won’t go,” Linda said. “Oh no,” I responded. “The one thing we are sure about is that you are being called to join the Garrett-Evangelical faculty.” And as one alternative after another fell through, we concluded that the only option open for us was to have a commuter marriage for a year.
We didn’t expect to like it and we didn’t. Linda would return to Dubuque most weekends. Sometimes I would carve out a few days to go to Evanston. We quickly realized that life apart was an untenable solution. Yet nothing opened up for me.
On one of my desert days in a monastery nearby, I was reading the story of Saul on the road to Damascus when the words flew off the page: “Go into the city and there it will be told you what to do.” And in that glimpse of the face of God, I knew what I had to do: leave the ministry I loved so much and move to the city without any guarantee of a job, daring to trust in the One who went before me. Something would work out but I wouldn’t know what. Like the claim laid on me in preaching the sermon on Viet Nam, I knew I had to do it, even though it was no more than a glimpse of the face of God.
We found a unit in a six-flat in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago with spacious living and dining rooms just meant for the entertaining we like to do. A very part-time position directing the seminary choir became available in the spring. I applied and was appointed. There was a new director of field education there named Barbara Troxell who was looking for someone to oversee the student pastors and seminary interns in an adjunct position; again I was appointed. The new United Methodist hymnal was coming out and I was asked to teach a class introducing it. I applied to Loyola as an adjunct in theology and taught two courses a term there for the Jesuits. All in all, I ended up with 11 contract letters—more than full time work with considerably less than full time pay, which is par for the course for adjuncts everywhere.
The first spring term brought new possibilities. A gift from Nellie B. Ebersole, a music teacher and choir director in Detroit, enabled the establishment of the Ebersole Program in Music Ministry. But the big opportunity came with the retirement of one of the two preaching professors. That position was to shift the focus of one of those positions from preaching to worship. “Ah,” I thought. “This is what God has been leading me toward.” And so I worked hard developing my application, making a case for my preparation for such a position and developing sample syllabi.
I was one of three finalists and was invited to prepare for an on-campus interview. I was ecstatic. But then the chair of the search committee told me they had changed their minds. They would only do a full interview with a candidate of choice, and that wasn’t me. I was devastated. The candidate of choice was Ruth Duck and she was appointed to the position.
When she arrived on campus, I discovered that her office would be in the same building as mine, one floor up. We had corresponded some regarding use of her hymns by the Iowa Annual Conference so I had some acquaintance with her. Swallowing my pride, I walked up the stairs and knocked on her office door. “Welcome, Ruth,” I said. “The seminary is blessed to have such an excellent hymn writer on the faculty. Of course, I have to be honest. I’d be a lot more enthusiastic if I weren’t hurting so much from not getting the position myself.” Whereupon Ruth said, “close the door, come in and sit down.”
She shared some of disappointments of her own professional life and some of her anxiety about this position. By the time the conversation ended, we had begun what was to become a rich and rewarding friendship as colleagues with deep respect and appreciation of the gifts of each other.
The faculty had recognized that times had changed since the day when most incoming seminarians had a major in philosophy or at least some undergraduate work in it. It’s difficult to teach systematic theology to students who don’t have any background in philosophy or religion. So they designed a course, the title of which is a dead give-away that it has been designed by committee: “Contexts and Methodologies of Contemporary Theologizing.” Among the goals were to provide students with a rudimentary background in philosophy, acquaint them with major theological options, and develop an awareness of the role of context in theologizing. All this in one introductory course!
“Dwight,” the president and dean said to me, “you have a master’s degree in philosophy and a doctorate in theology, you’ve taught undergraduates, and you’ve got pastoral credibility for having just come from pastoring a church. We’d like you to teach the course.” Of course, I said “yes” and was appointed associate professor of theology.
Later the president called me in and said: “Both of our systematic theologians are process theologians. We need to give students another option and want you to teach systematic from another perspective.”
I took this as opening for the use of a wide range of readings, including Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and liberation theologians. I included Cobb and Suhocki, too, but not as the only option on the menu. As time went on, I was able to focus my attention on Systematic II dealing with Christ, Spirit, Church, and the Trinity, which I came to understand as perichoresis (not three persons dancing, but the DANCE itself including the three persons!)
I told Ruth that I’d love to teach a course in liturgical theology, and she said, “I’ll just list it next term and we’ll see what happens.” It went through without objection and I taught it regularly from then on, alternating it with a course on sacraments and rites with a strong component of sacramental theology. In time, I was reviewed by my colleagues and promoted to full professor of theology and ministry.
Back in Dubuque days I had been elected to membership in the North American Academy of Liturgy and I continued to be an active member of the liturgical theology seminar there, serving as its convenor for a number of years. Sensing a need for a reader in primary sources of liturgical theology while on sabbatical at Collegeville, I pitched the project to the Liturgical Press who enthusiastically supported the idea. Working with the major figures in liturgical theology from many faith perspectives and enabling them to be in dialogue with one another gave rise to a book which remains the only book of its kind on the market, surprising me every year with how many copies are being sold!
Ruth and I determined that we could provide a very credible Ph.D. program in liturgical studies. She asked me to oversee its development and coordinate the program, which received a full ten year accreditation from its inception.
One of my proudest moments came when a new doctoral student told us he had asked a venerable scholar in the field where to do his doctoral work in liturgics. She said “if I were doing it now, I’d go to Garrett-Evangelical.” Working with those talented doctoral students was one of the greatest joys of my teaching career, opening up new glimpses of the face of God with amazing regularity. When a fully endowed chair was established at Garrett-Evangelical, I was installed as Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Worship. For the first time, the title of my position reflected my scholarly focus.
The last class I taught at the seminary was an introductory theology course in which the students were mostly Christian educators and church musicians doing their master’s degree while continuing to serve in churches around the country. They told me they were “scared to death of theology” yet, I’ve never had a class where students prepared so rigorously. Near the end of the first week, one of them said to me: ‘‘You’re going to turn us into theologians yet, aren’t you?” To which I replied, “no, I just want you to discover you’ve been theologians all along and just didn’t know it!”
This conviction was reflected in two books Linda and I co-authored in which we tried to take scholarship in liturgical and sacramental theology and ritual studies and put it into language and concepts that persons without a background in those fields could understand and recognize as part of their own lived experience.
We spent one January term traveling around India with our friend Father David, who by then was teaching there. It was way outside our comfort zone but having a knowledgable guide who knew the territory made it into a valuable learning experience.
One of Linda’s doctor of ministry advisees was Houston McKelvey, director of education for the Church of Ireland. After Linda did his mid-program review in Belfast, we made a circle tour of both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
We’ve now made eight trips to Ireland. From our very first visit there, Ireland seemed like home. Part of it is the beauty of the countryside, a lot is the friendliness of the people. I delight in the ruins and tombs and historic sites. But most of all, it’s a “thin place” where the boundary between ordinary life and the Deep Mystery beyond us is very thin, and the “communion of the saints” beyond our sight is not beyond our sense.
We have encountered those thin places all over Ireland. I’ve chanted the canticle of Simeon with no one else around me in Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel and the Gallarus Oratory on Dingle, stood in the whipping wind near the ancient tombs of the Burren, been overwhelmed by the waves crashing against the Cliffs of Moher and stood in utter solitude by the peat bogs of Connamerra with only the gulls intoning their liturgy above. Together with the Paha Sapa of South Dakota and the Pecos ruins of New Mexico, it’s in such places that I’ve felt the Deep Mystery beyond words and concepts which is a profound glimpse of the face of God.
Where would we go in retirement? None of the places we looked at seemed quite right so we decided to stay in Chicago for a while. Then in the second year of retirement came another of God’s surprises. Now you need to know that Southern California was not one of our favorite places. When we had taught one summer at CST, the smog had been horrendous and the traffic terrible. It was a place to visit but not to stay.
However, the national retreat of the Order of Saint Luke was scheduled for the Old Santa Barbara mission, and our friend and former covenant group partner Barbara Troxell, invited us to come and spend a few days with her before the retreat.
The first evening she took us to the Petterson Museum for a presentation on the Day of the Dead by Jim and Joanne Lamb, the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with the Petterson as a microcosm of the world where the art of the craftsman is a language that crosses cultural barriers. As T. S. Eliot puts it: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”—a lesson we learned from Taylor and June McConnell with whom we studied culture-bridging in New Mexico.
Within twenty-four hours, Linda said to me: “This is where we need to be.” “You never cease to surprise me” I said to my companion who had made four seasons a stipulation for a retirement location, “but I think so too.” Later that week, as we reflected on that decision we realized that we could best understand it in terms of vocation—a call to intentional community.
Travel has been part of our life here, including summers in the Paha Sapa, trips to New Mexico and our beloved Ireland, and most surprising of all, being invited to teach at the University of Dayton’s educational center in Deepahalli, India. Think of it, two United Methodists from mid-west America teaching liturgy in India to Roman Catholic brothers in the Society of Mary! The cultural context of these brothers who would be working in slums and impoverished areas with homeless boys and single mothers and remote villages was very different from ours. But the liturgy of the hours and the sacraments that feed us was what fed them, calling us to ministries of compassion and justice.
I have glimpsed that deep mystery in the natural world on Mt. Baldy, the pounding of the surf along the coast, morning walks in the desert at 29 Palms, and in persons in the beloved community here—Pat Patterson’s poetry, my brothers and sisters in the Order of St. Luke, and the Eucharistic circle breaking bread, aware of our broken world. I find those glimpses of God’s face in so many people here, but even more in the inter-relationships—the dance we dance, the incarnation of perichoresis itself—the being-together-with-one-another of which Bonhoeffer speaks.
In writing Times and Seasons with God, Linda and I wrestled with how we arrive at meaning in our search for Truth. We decided that it is not just discovered—a reality that’s out there that we can comprehend. But neither is it created wholly by our minds out of the concepts and language of our culture. Rather we are engaged in sculpting meaning out of our lived experience.
My concept of the One whom I worship and to whom I pray is an icon, a doorway to the Transcendent/Immanent/Relational Great Mystery beyond all human names and construals. But it is not only an icon I have sculpted to gaze upon. It is also the doorway through which Deep Mystery gazes on me as I apprehend that mystery in prayer and the daily office, in the celebration of the Eucharist, in spiritual experience, and most clearly in Jesus. All this despite the myopia and cataracts that affect my capacity to see.
The face of God which I glimpse is
- personal — even as I know the Deep transcendent mystery to be more than personal,
- relational — yet beyond relations and more than all of them, and
- incarnational — in people and thin places and times of joy and crisis.
As the anonymous hymn writer of 1890 puts it:
“I sought the Lord and afterward I knew, my soul was moved to seek God seeking me.”
—glimpses of the Deep Mystery who keeps my “going out and my coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” (Ps. 121)
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
 Come O Thou Traveler Unknown, UMH
 Sanctorum Communio