Novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace once wrote an effusive profile of tennis great Roger Federer entitled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times. He described “Federer Moments,” explaining, “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.” He later adds, “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious…” To witness it up close, the writer said, “is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
Delegates to the Central Conference Annual Meeting last spring had the chance to experience their own “Weborg Moment.” They watched a video of John describing his work with abused women at Freedom House in Princeton, Illinois. Afterward, Chris Pickett, chair of Covenant Children’s Ministry, which operates Freedom House, and a former student of Weborg’s, declared, “I was there when they filmed that. He did that all in one take and with just ten minutes of preparation! I wish you could have been there.”
At that moment I knew I had to write the story that appears in this month’s Covenant Companion. I hope it will help readers who haven’t “been there” to better understand why some of us speak about John Weborg in almost mythic terms, why we who were his students were awed and sometimes amused by John being John. When I mentioned to friends that I’d be spending a day with him in Princeton, Illinois, a common response was one of envy. Quite selfishly, I wanted the excuse to spend time with John.
In preparation for the interview I reread his book Alert to Life, Alive in Christ several times, and I am as convinced as ever that it could stand as a classic. (Unfortunately it is out of print.)
There are teachers who educate, and then there are those who open vistas, showing you worlds you didn’t know existed. That’s who John has been for many of us. He could tell us what lay before us, but he was most interested in seeing us explore. It could be exhausting at times. One semester, I had him for back-to-back classes, which some days was overwhelming.
Writing the article was nerve-wracking. I wanted to get it right. But there was just so much to say. The first draft was 3,000 words longer than what appears in the magazine. I’m grateful for the editors who still had to cut the draft I submitted—my fourth or fifth—by some 1,200 words. And I’m grateful for my wife who had to put up with a husband who was more neurotic than usual.
Ultimately, I wanted to write the story as a way to say thank you—even if John didn’t know exactly why.
One story explains that a little.
In the 1980s, I pastored a rural church in California with an average attendance of about 35 people. It was located at a crossroads outside of town and surrounded by vineyards and fruit tree orchards. (The locals call them ranches.) We started an annual event called Celebrating the Small Family Farm, which featured artists and speakers. Our attendance swelled to well over 100 on those evenings.
One year John agreed to be the speaker. He spent the night before at the farm home of one of our families. Another guest in the house that night was a friend of the family, an entomologist who happened to be a staunch atheist. The family told me that the two spent much of the night discussing science, faith, philosophy, and a range of other heady topics during which John demonstrated the breadth of his knowledge while exhibiting a constant graciousness—despite comments from the other guest regarding the foolishness of religious belief.
Our congregation was a mixed bag. Some were politically and theologically liberal Mennonites; others were to the right of Pat Robertson. When John spoke, he talked of growing up on a farm in Pender, Nebraska; he talked about the arts, and he talked about community. His listeners knew he was one of them, regardless of theology or politics. People still talk about that night.
When John returned home, he penned a letter that he asked me to read to the congregation. It said in part:
“One of the reflections I take home with me is the celebration of place. In Nebraska, we spoke of ‘the farm place’ and sometimes of the ‘home place’ if a farmer farmed more than one piece of land. God promised Israel a place and it was land. Land can both be owned and shared. It is shared with wildlife and the healthy bacterial and worm life with the soil. It is shared when we produce food for others that bring beauty and thoughtfulness to places otherwise lonely and shadowed. So what the farmer has is simultaneously shared.
“So with the church. It is a place, but it is shared with whomever God sends our way. Unlike the land, we do not hold title deed—that belongs to God in Christ, but we do hold place in a congregation, and that place in some ways is as wide open as the valley you folks farm. That is, a church is God’s wide open arms, spacious as the land you enjoy.”
That was John being John. It was a Weborg Moment.