By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (August 3, 2011) – The C. John Weborg Center for Spiritual Direction was named, not only in honor of the longtime professor of theology at North Park Theological Seminary (NPTS), but also to celebrate what God has done through his life and ministry, speakers told the 230 people who gathered at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel on Saturday night.
The center previously was known as the Center for Spiritual Direction.
The center held its first classes in 2005, funded by a Lilly Foundation grant. The beginnings actually go back much further, said Richard Carlson, professor of ministry and co-director of the C. John Weborg Center for Spiritual Direction.
Carlson told the gathering that the Latin word “seminarium,” from which the English word “seminary” is derived, literally means seed-bed, “in which plants are nurtured, watered, blessed with sunlight, and occasionally pruned. A good and faithful gardener is essential.
“That is why the history of the center actually starts in 1975, when John joined the faculty,” Carlson continued. “His diligence, persistence and vision showed he was the right gardener to plant and nurture seeds.”
President Gary Walter was in one of the first classes Weborg taught. “I realized I was in the presence of a true giant in terms of understanding the ways of God,” he said. Then, as now, “There was a presumption of profundity by the students.”
Weborg was assisted to the stage and spoke briefly. “I’m not quite sure how to understand tonight, because I’m not quite sure what I did,” he said to laughter. “I know that I did what my dean asked me to do.”
In his familiar cadence, Weborg told of growing up in Pender, Nebraska, at the end of the Great Depression and listening to his parents and friends tell stories. “As I think back over it, they told the same stories. But they never became boring because they were stories about how we survived the depression, and how we survived the droughts.”
Weborg said that as he reflects on the stories, “the one thing that stays with me is that not once was the personal pronoun ‘I’ used. It was always ‘we.’ And the use of the plural pronoun ‘we’ says a lot about the farming communities in which I lived, because it was ‘we’ who worked together, and they understood each other as ‘we’ upon whom they could call.”
It was only because the entire seminary faculty worked together that the center was launched and has succeeded, Weborg said.
The evening also honored the other three members of the “gang of four” who were instrumental in steering the seminary to make spiritual direction an integral part of all students’ education.
Fran Anderson joined the seminary staff in 1975 and was the school’s first woman faculty member. She first brought up the idea of supporting the students’ spiritual development in a more designed fashion. Weborg developed the first course.
Jane Koonce had a recurring dream in which she saw herself teaching at NPTS. She met with Dean Rob Johnston and interviewed with the faculty. She remembers Weborg saying, “Jane, you are an answer to prayer. I need a spiritual director.” Today is her 88th birthday, so the gathering regaled her with a well-harmonized “Happy Birthday.”
Richard Carlson previously pastored an inner-city church and served as director of field education at the seminary for 25 years. He has taught the beginning course at the spiritual direction center since its inception.
Nicholas Wolterstorff was Weborg’s choice to give the evening’s address. The professor emeritus of philosophical theology at Yale University, Wolterstorff told the gathering that
spirituality, remembrance, and justice are inter-related. Christianity is uniquely a spirituality of remembering because it is a story-telling faith, with the work of Christ being at the center of the story.
“Christian spirituality that does not remember is a truncated spirituality,” Wolterstorff said. Christian memory is not merely an interior act of the individual, but also a public act that expresses itself in serving the outcast and impoverished, he added.
Earlier in the evening, the 12 graduates of the center’s fifth cohort were called on stage, and North Park University president David Parkyn addressed them, saying, “You are well-prepared, but you are not fully prepared.” He explained that while their education was excellent, they would be fully prepared only as they continue to allow God to speak into their lives.
He added, “North Park has never been just about the head, but also the heart and ultimately our hands.”
The evening also was a fundraiser. The center hopes to establish an endowment of $500,000. Interest would be used to help fund the school.
The gathering experienced what may have been one of the more surreal moments in Weborg’s long career. Just as he started to speak, hideously loud thumping music of the Black Eyed Peas music group reverberated from the hall next door. The gathering was the Imperial Ball for attendees of Cyphan, a Comic-Con similar event at which attendees dressed as Klingons, zombies and World of Warcraft characters, among others. Weborg kept speaking as if he had not noticed.
The moment of celebration was paused for just a moment as the gathering recognized the work of Covenant minister M. Randolph Thompson, who was a founding team member of the center. Thompson’s funeral service was conducted earlier in the morning.