Weborg Moments

CHICAGO, IL (October 9, 2014) — The cover story in this month’s The Covenant Companion features respected theologian and columnist C. John Weborg. Many readers have responded, sharing their gratitude and respect for John’s life and ministry. In this final article in the series, which includes an extended interview as well as a story about the day-long photo shoot, Stan Friedman gives us the “story behind the story.”

By Stan Friedman

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 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 myself 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-racking. 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 my behavior that was even more neurotic than usual on my part.

Ultimately, I wanted to write the story to say thank you—even if John didn’t know exactly why.

One illustration 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.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you for the compliments. Of course, since John doesn’t use computers, someone had to print the web story so he could read it as well as your words. ….

  2. I want to join the chorus of appreciative friends who commended you on that fine story on dear John Weborg, Stan. As Herb Freedholm said, John embodies the best in our Lutheran-Pietist tradition. I was privileged to be a part of a men’s’ Bible study group that John led for several years. What an enriching time that was! When our daughter died a few years ago, John and Lois came to our home to express their sympathy and pray with us. So like them both. And then John preached the homily at her memorial service, and, as you might imagine, delivered a deeply moving sermon. As Mary Oliver writes: “Holy, Holy, holy are the better labors of men.”

    Thanks for your fine feature essay, Stan.

  3. John Weborg was our first pastor in his first pastorate in Peoria, Illinois, in the sixties. His theology and strong leadership qualities were recognized even then. My husband and I knew he would continue to grow and share his leadership abilities in the Covenant and anyone he came in contact with. He dedicated our first born, Mark, and over the years we maintained some contact with him
    and Lois.

    When Daniel died suddenly in 1998, I immediately thought of John, who came to Rockford, Illinois, to officiate. His presence and thoughts were deeply appreciated by the family. We learned later he was ill that day, but he willingly gave of himself.
    As pastor, teacher, leader and scholar God continues to use you, John.

  4. John Weborg represents the very heart and soul of the Covenant Church, the bringing together of our Lutheran and Pietist roots! He is a profound preacher and teacher, but also a pastor in the highest and best of that word and ministry! I was privileged to be a fellow student with him during our days in seminary, and also the recipient of his insightful care and love through the years! Thank you, Stan, for your wonderful story and tribute to John!

  5. I first met John when he was a seminary student at North Park. I was impressed with him way back then. Over the many years since then John has proved to be not only a gifted theologian, a caring mentor and an inspiring teacher to many both in and out of the class room, but, indeed, a blessing and wonderful gift to the Covenant. Thanks, Stan, for capturing so much of that gift for us.

  6. Somebody please bring _Alert to Life, Alive in Christ_ back into print! It would be one of my top choices as a gift to thoughtful friends and colleagues.

  7. My life is different because of countless “Weborg Moments,” some which I am just naming as such 30-plus years after. At times I feel I am still a part of the visible church (“organized Christianity”) because of how he opened vistas for me into the spaciousness and graciousness of God.

  8. He is such a blessing! I look forward to our Covenant Children’s Ministry board meetings (formerly Covenant Children’s Home, Princeton) because he brings a meditation at the beginning that is always awesome. Thank You for sharing this Stan.

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