Convocation and Loving a World That’s Beautiful and Broken

This post features reflections by Dr. L. DeAne Lagerquist, Professor of Religion and Harold H. Ditmanson Distinguished Chair on being the speaker at her final convocation at St. Olaf before she retires in spring 2022.
Professor Lagerquist’s photo of her “last, first day” of teaching

All of us live in multiple, overlapping time frames. Those Christians who observe the liturgical calendar begin the new year on a Sunday, late in November or early December; in the northern hemisphere that means that our new year coincides with the shorter days and colder nights of autumn. We also participate in cultural festivals shared with our neighbors, such as Valentine’s Day or the Defeat of Jesse James Day in my town, and civic events including elections and national independence days. Parades, speeches, and feasts are among the ways we mark these cycles and various life passages. 

Along with the liturgical year, the natural seasons, and election cycles, for six decades my life has been organized by the academic year. The precise dates have varied depending upon the specific school, but since I was five years old nearly every fall has been the start of a new semester. No doubt, like me, in recent days readers of this blog have been seeing lots of photos of kids in new clothes, lunch in hand, pack on the back, ready for the first day of school. This year I posted my own photo labeled, “Last, first day.” 

I’m fortunate that my current school, St. Olaf College, has a ritual to mark the launch of a new year. Every September that event draws us back from our separate summer activities and points us to our common educational work. Faculty members process in our academic garb; the band plays stirring music; new and returning students join in the singing and listen to talks by the student body president and a faculty speaker. This year I was that speaker. 

Andy Miller, the student speaker, welcomed his classmates. He noted that this was the beginning of seniors’ final year; first year students’ first semester of college; and sophomores’ first in-person convocation since last year’s was virtual. A  junior himself, he admitted to just being really glad to be back on campus, some steps closer to pre-pandemic conditions. He gave sound advice about how to contribute to and make the most of college life.

As I prepared my remarks I knew that like Andy I would have to take account of all the ways ordinary campus life had been disrupted in the previous year and a half, both as we all encountered those disruptions and as each of us experienced them personally.  At the same time I wanted to point toward the near and more distant future, to say something about the enduring goals of higher education, particularly at St. Olaf College. This was an opportunity to articulate a vision for all my colleagues and our students as well as to provide an account of what Lutheran tradition offers to this enterprise.

At the same time I wanted to point toward the near and more distant future, to say something about the enduring goals of higher education, particularly at St. Olaf College. This was an opportunity to articulate a vision for all my colleagues and our students as well as to provide an account of what Lutheran tradition offers to this enterprise.

You can listen here to my remarks, “There is only one question.” If you do, you will notice what one of my colleagues commented upon: I don’t start with the Bible or Luther. Another colleague from the English department, said, “I should have known you’d start with poetry;” he knew because we’ve taught together and I frequently read poems in class. Poets give us evocative insight. Their language activates our imagination. I find poetry often conveys theological truths. In this talk I say that Mary Oliver both poses the central question, “how to love the world,” and shares wisdom for doing so. I put her claim into conversation with other writers and explore it in my academic setting.

That the world is “beautiful, broken, and beloved” is a central claim of Lutheran Christianity. The world is made by God, marred by sin, renewed and sustained by divine grace. Recognition that what is broken and what is beautiful is usually one thing–the world, relationships, myself–is at the heart of Lutherans’ confession of our sin and of our faith. Trust in God’s steadfast love for the beautiful and also broken calls me to and energizes me for the “work of wonder and repair.”

If you listen you may also notice the Lutheran themes that an alum identified: the theology of the cross, grace, and vocation. Those surely inform the meaning I attribute to key phrases in the talk. That the world is “beautiful, broken, and beloved” is a central claim of Lutheran Christianity. The world is made by God, marred by sin, renewed and sustained by divine grace. Recognition that what is broken and what is beautiful is usually one thing–the world, relationships, myself–is at the heart of Lutherans’ confession of our sin and of our faith. Trust in God’s steadfast love for the beautiful and also broken calls me to and energizes me for the “work of wonder and repair.” Or, in more conventional terms, for my baptismal vocation: the obligation to love my neighbors and the world we inhabit together.

Together we take up our overlapping responsibilities for the “work of wonder and repair” this academic year, in the midst of national challenges, with gratitude for what is good, and hope for what is to come. 

Perhaps after you have listened you will not embrace the theological convictions that inform my reading of Mary Oliver’s poems. I know that not all my colleagues and students do. Nonetheless, many of them join me in learning to love a world that is both “beautiful and broken.” Together we take up our overlapping responsibilities for the “work of wonder and repair” this academic year, in the midst of national challenges, with gratitude for what is good, and hope for what is to come. 

L. DeAne Lagerquist

Harold H. Ditmanson Distinguished Chair, Religion

Watch the full Convocation: