President’s speech: “Out of the Whirlwind”

Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, April 27, 2008 at the Goshen College Church-Chapel

Scripture reading: Job 38-42

Congratulations 2008 graduates. What an exciting day this is for you, for your parents, your family and friends — indeed, for all of us celebrating with you.

Let me give a bit of PR advice to you for later today, if you happen to see the local press around. Just remember the first rule of graduation coverage: If you’re the one who is so nervous, and you take a breath and suck your tassel right up your nose, you’re also the one whose picture they’ll use in the graduation story. So just relax, only don’t breathe too deeply.

If that or anything like that happens today, I hope you are able to laugh heartily at yourself. Perhaps, such embarrassment will be payback for those times you embarrassed your parents as a toddler. You know that time at church, when the minister was walking up to the pulpit, and you shouted out, “Oh, no! Not him again!”

Being able to laugh at yourself, in hindsight or being able to laugh at yourself by looking inwardly may be one of the surest signs that you are ready to graduate. As the saying goes, “We grow up the day we have our first real laugh — at ourselves.”

Getting to the place of such audacious vulnerability is just where today’s Scripture invites us to go. No other book in the entire Bible asks so many questions as the Book of Job. The exchange of questions between Job and his friends, between Job and God, between God and the Satan, are not merely Socratic in nature; they are dueling it out as if in a courtroom of disputation.

It reminds us of the invitation by God to the prophet Isaiah, “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord” (1:18). Moses had questions for God, as did Abraham and Sarah, so also Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Martha and the disciples of Jesus. Job was confident that God was the kind of God that any upright person, like himself, could reason with boldly and, as Job says, “be acquitted forever by (God) my judge” (23:7).

Thomas Jefferson, sounding a bit like job, once said, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there is one, God must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear.”

In a sense, the best liberal arts education, which I might add you now have, instills in you the confidence that getting to the deep down truth of things demands one to possess the inquisitive mind of a journalist, the probing mind of a scientist, the persistent mind of the philosopher. “Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, “Where is the director?” (said Soren Kierkegaard). Asking who, what, when, where, how and why questions remains among the noblest of all callings in life, the call to become, in the words of one of our core values here at GC, a life-long “passionate learner.”

But then, amidst all these rightful questions, come the “whirlwind.” At first, it comes like the calm before the storm, “lightning held back,” when the air is still and the birds stop singing. The 300 kilovolts are released into the “wild scope of nature, into our hearts and minds — humans being the most electrical of all earth creature (as said Bram Stoker,The Lair of the White Worm).

The whirlwind comes to us, as it did Job, in that grown-up place, in those post-graduation times, that place described in Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” “When despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound/in fear what my life and my children’s lives may be.” Then comes the whirlwind!

Let me pause for a brief hurricane warning. Have you ever noticed when you turn on the television and see the weather person pointing to some radar blob out in the Atlantic Ocean warning of an impending hurricane, she or he always makes two basic meteorological points: 1. No need to panic; 2. We could all be killed.

As a kid who grew up in Florida, where some 479 tropical cyclones or hurricanes hit since 1900, I fully appreciate a simple three-step hurricane preparedness plan I once heard: Step 1, buy enough food and bottled water to last for three days; Step 2, put these supplies in your car; Step 3, drive to Nebraska and stay there until Halloween. In other words, no need to panic — we could all be killed.

Part of me wants to advise you graduates, who are so ready to go out into the world: Don’t go. But that would be pointless. You have already.

There’s something comforting and terrifying about the whirlwind confronting Job. You see, sometimes all these wonderful, exciting questions we have in life can become simply a game to us. We are tempted to get caught up in the act of challenging cherished beliefs, but then don’t stick around for a chance to dialogue and discover if our questions do lead to meaningful responses.

To students who are compelled to ask, “What’s the point” of their liberal arts education (or any education, for that matter), ethicist Alistair McIntyre responds, “Such a student should be taught that a mark of someone ready to leave school is that they no longer ask that question (Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2002, 4). Apparently for McIntyre, some questions belie a desire not to learn or that one knows too much already.

Sometimes our questions invite a proud cynicism masquerading as intelligence, when such cynicism may be little more than “intellectual treason.” (Dr. Norman Cousins, “Human Options”). I sometimes diagnose certain cynicisms as induced by “the lazy-mind syndrome” whose symptoms include the facility to easily deconstruct attempts at meaningful coherence without then taking on the very hard work of constructing or reconstructing a fulfilling and fruitful and hopeful explanatory system for living. We have done you no service at all, if we haven’t helped you to do such hard and joyful work.

When those moments come, and they inevitably do, when rightful questions turn to cynical pride, oh to have God speak to us out of the whirlwind, to rattle our mental bones, like an earthquake. No need to panic. We could be killed.

In the great creation poem of Job 38-42, Job becomes a stand-in for us: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job and us. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow? Is the wild ox to serve you? Can you bind the chains of Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?”

I love the fact that here God is asking all the questions — questions from nature, from the place of “wild things,” from amidst “the cloud of unknowing.” In this place of wildness, at the boundary of our knowledge, in the “face of mystery,” we, like Job, cry out: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I heard of you, O Lord, by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Here Job makes a study of knowledge about the limits of knowledge, and the philosopher’s claim about the nature of perception. What a wonderfully humble stance, a laughing at his own limited knowledge, joy at the mystery of perception.

In a recent interview, Catholic theologian Nicolas Lash describes this stance of servant leadership when he argues that all academic, technical, mind-numbing work should be done “on one’s knees, with one’s shoes off,” the Holy Ground of being.

There is a certain peace granted to us in letting go of our pretensions, our self-induced certainties, when we “go and lie down where the wood drake/ rests in his beauty on the water/ and the great heron feeds. / I (We) come into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief” … and “For a time I (we) rest in the grace of the world, and am (are) free.”

I pray that each of you will find that comforting place of unpretension, where laughter at yourself in the presence of the divine or others will no longer be a source of embarrassment, where the whirlwind of God’s presence will come to you as a source of deep knowledge and perception, where for a time you will find rest in the grace of the world, which is at base, the grace of God, and where the true peace of God will be yours forever. Amen.

Categories: President, Speeches