Chapel Talk

September 27, 2011

I would like to spend a few moments this morning reflecting on beginnings. This is our season of beginnings. I’ve observed before in chapel talks that there’s an interesting lack of congruity between the rhythms of the natural year and the rhythms of the academic year. Autumn, the time of the natural year that the poet Keats called the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” is all about the completion of the growing season, about the fulfillment of promise, about abundance, about harvest, and then about the long sleep of winter.

By contrast, in the academic calendar autumn is all about potential, about promise, about newness — in short, about beginnings. This is particularly true, of course, for first year students. For you, this autumn is all about a whole new phase of your life: you’re away from home, most of you for the first extended period; for most of you it’s the first time to have a roommate or roommates; you probably have more discretion over how to spend your time than you’ve ever had before; and every day you’re encountering new people, new ideas, new opportunities and challenges. That’s great: that’s what college is all about.

Autumn is the season of beginning for the rest of our students, too. I think particularly about our seniors. I was talking with one of our highly esteemed student workers in the President’s office yesterday, a senior, and he was talking about writing his Fulbright application, taking the GRE, applying for graduate schools, thinking about employment opportunities after graduation. You might think that senior status lends a certain stability in your life, confers on you the rank of village elder, and promises a relief from change. It doesn’t. Your senior year is the transition to the next phase of your life, and so autumn of your senior year isn’t your season of mists and mellow fruitfulness either.

It’s the same, though perhaps to a different degree, for those of us who have been in college longer. The Religion department will be moving later this fall from the lower level of Boe Chapel to Old Main, as soon as the renovations there are finished. Moving your office is a big deal. If you want to see the real impact beginnings can have on a person, watch a professor move from an office he or she has inhabited for decades. I don’t want to name any names here, but some of our friends in Religion have a lot of packing to do. Ditto for the Music Department Office, that will be moving sometime this year from Christiansen Hall of Music to newly renovated space in what used to be the administration building. The same thing is true for our friends in the division of Advancement and College Relations, especially those who have moved out of the modular village into space they deserve in the old admin building. Those trailers are going away this week. They served us well, but I don’t think anyone will be sad to see them go.

I’m beginning my forty-second year in college this autumn, but it’s nevertheless also a season of beginnings for me: 740 new students, new colleagues in the faculty and staff, especially our Interim Pastor Ann Svennungsen who has already done so much to carry forward the energy and relevance of our worship life and our identity as Lutheran college, new members of the Board of Regents to work with. Priscilla and I are empty nesters — again — and, much as we love our children, I have to report that it’s not all bad being alone together (except for our yellow lab, Macey) in that big house. It’s a wonderful opportunity to re-discover why you married that person in the first place.

Our lives are full of beginnings. They always will be. And beginnings will always create both excitement and anxiety because they represent both pathways to new experiences, to growth, and to learning, and opportunities to flounder, to get lost, or to fail. Most beginnings probably result in some combination of all of these possible outcomes. Most of us don’t lead lives that move ineluctably from point A to point B according to our rationally conceived and impeccably executed plan. Rather, we start, hesitate, stop, change direction, pause and reflect, begin anew.

The Christian story speaks about beginnings. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Our world began, and we began, with God’s spontaneous, loving act that formed the earth and populated it with humans empowered to make their way in that world. You know what happened after that, of course, and you know how God responded: with another beginning in the person of Jesus, who came to earth as the incarnation of grace, forgiveness, and new life. The Christian story has the same shape as our own lives: we are presented with the gift of new beginnings. We take them up. We grow, we learn, we flounder, we fail, we begin anew.

The key fact in the Christian story, of course, is the steadfast love of God for His creation throughout permeates and undergirds that narrative. Nothing in the Christian story happens in a vacuum, without a context, and hence without meaning. The beginnings described in that narrative flow from God’s love and care for the creation and feed our opportunities to grow closer to God, to bend our imperfect will away from sin, and to experience His grace. This is why the Christian story is fundamentally a story about hope. The arc of the narrative bends away from directionless isolation, toward fulfillment, wholeness and unity.

So let’s return to thinking about this season of beginnings at St. Olaf College. Now, I’m not going to stand here and argue that if calculus is a beginning for you this semester and you’re struggling there’s no need to worry because God’s love for the creation, displayed in the shape of the Christian story, guarantees that you will ultimately be saved in that class. I’m convinced that God loves you, but I’m pretty sure He’s not going to take your calculus test for you. And if language study is a beginning for you and you are struggling with the ablative absolute in your Latin class, I think it’s a good bet that your professor’s office hours, tutoring, and some hard studying are more likely than prayer to turn that around.

But here’s what I will argue. Beginnings are generally a good thing because they represent opportunity, and this is their season. Seize them. Most of the opportunities at St. Olaf were crafted purposefully for you. There’s a lot of thought and intentionality behind, for example, the general education program that requires you to take classes all across the curriculum not just in your favorite field of study; or the menu of off-campus study programs designed to give you access to the whole world, not just a slice of it; or your first-year roommate who is purposely not from the same state that you are; or the menu in the caf that is driven by what’s available locally at any given time of the year rather than on what can be flown here from some far away place regardless of the impact of that flight on our carbon footprint. Embrace the brussel sprout.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And that loving act set in motion human history and the spiritual journey of God’s people marked by opportunity, by failure, by new beginnings, and by hope. Approach your beginnings at St. Olaf and your life in the same spirit, and may God bless you in your journey.

Amen.

David R. Anderson ’74