My brief task this morning is to provide a word of challenge as we begin our year of study and worship together. I’d like for the word to begin with a visual image.
I have always been intrigued by stained glass, largely because I love the cold grandeur of medieval cathedrals. If you have visited any of these cavernous sanctuaries, you have no doubt felt the contrast between the gray stone of the interiors and the bright colors that rush through the glass in the high gothic arches above.
But another reason that I enjoy stained glass, quite frankly, is that I have trouble sitting still. In church, I can be an impatient listener, always looking around, exploring something. Often in this chapel I have stared out the large clear windows to observe the oak branches in the wind or the falling snow. And I have wondered about the story of the stained glass windows at the front of this sanctuary.
Their story is an intriguing one. The glass here is a portion of the windows created for the Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the grand mansions in one of the world’s elite cities. Built between 1888 and 1892, the house was intended as a summer “cottage” for William and Alva Vanderbilt, among the nation’s richest people. The Marble House windows were actually a collage of artwork from many centuries. They incorporate several pieces of what Alva Vanderbilt identified as “old cathedral glass”—remnants of medieval French windows. Some of the floral designs in the Marble House panels are indeed very old handiwork, now embedded into windows reconstructed in the Victorian era. The human figures in the windows here were designed after twelfth- and thirteenth-century glass images in the Cathedral of Le Mans in France. In time, the Marble House was sold to the Prince family, owners of the estate that became this campus in 1955. During their renovation of the Marble House the Prince family removed the windows and eventually they gave many of them—not only these in the sanctuary but also the ones in the prayer chapel upstairs—to Gordon College.
As we worship here, in the presence of artistry from the twelfth century, I can’t help but think of the importance of history. One of the goals of a Christian liberal arts program is to draw deeply from tradition. It is easy to become obsessed with our own moment and our place. If we simply own an iPhone or a satellite navigation system we convince ourselves of our own progress, our superiority over the wisdom and work of the past. Yet the challenge of a liberal arts education is to acquire the curiosity and humility to look more acutely at history—to perceive principles and values that have been compromised or lost, to understand the origins of the world’s best ideas, and to track the detours that have led to the worst.
But the liberal arts do more than draw our eyes backward; they compel us to look broadly. The color in stained glass is a fusion of past and present: ancient glass hit by light beams of extraordinary speed and scope. Within each narrow beam of light is actually a prism of color, a remarkable spectrum of energy and space. Most major ideas are spectrums themselves—historic concepts, illuminated by discoveries from the many cultures in our time. To understand brain science today, for instance, it is essential to know not simply the groundbreaking work of labs at Harvard and MIT in the last century but also the latest experiments at Fudan University in China. To understand the Christian church, we need to read Augustine and Calvin and also to learn about the revivals in Brazil and the courage of believers in Kandahar and Beruit.
When I view stained glass I see not only beauty but also brokenness. Quite literally, what you are looking at this morning is broken glass—fragments held together by lead. Stained glass also reminds me of my father. A schoolteacher and an amateur artist, dad loved to paint, to build things, and occasionally to design stained glass windows for churches. Since not everyone could pay for grand materials, my father was resourceful. On some Saturday evenings when I was a kid dad took us to the back of local factories, and we rummaged through the boxes and discards to find good fragments of tile, wood and glass, with interesting shades and textures. Today, of course, businesses are more environmentally alert and are less likely to stack debris behind their shops. But those were fun days for kids—we’d bring home refrigerator boxes, scrap lumber, ceramic tile, and colored glass that had been abandoned. While my brothers and I built forts and castles out of the boxes for our adventures in the backyard, dad made mosaics from the tile and glass that we had rescued from the discards.
My father is older now. Alone since my mother’s passing, he still enjoys his garden and his tools, but his hands tremble when he seizes them. But even this summer, several decades later, as I walked with him through his garage in California, there on the workbench were the scattered, chipped pieces and the brittle, fractured lead of a small stained glass window that he had rescued from an abandoned church building years ago. He still hopes, I am sure, to restore it. When I see church windows I think of my father’s hands and remember how he would transform debris into something sacred.
Our calling—as students and scholars in a Christian liberal arts college—is to see beauty where there is brokenness. To create patterns that overcome disorder, to find new strategies for repairing what is discarded or unjust. Speakers often say that they are privileged to be here, and it is tempting to think of that as a simple cliché. But we are very privileged to be here in this sanctuary. We are privileged to have the time and the freedom and the resources for inquiry, reflection and long-term study. So many in our world lack that opportunity for education because their daily burden is just to survive. We have been given so much. So much should be expected.
I must admit that I often do not pay enough attention to the brokenness of the world. Sometimes it is hard to know how to respond to human sorrow since it so pervasive, with nightly coverage of every car bombing, hurricane death and mine tragedy. Sometimes, in the busyness of this job, it is hard even to make time to listen to the struggles of those with whom I work every day. Each day my heart needs to get larger. I need to learn more compassion.
But compassion may not be enough. At the core of a Christian liberal arts institution is the hope that we can blend compassion with knowledge and persistence. We must do more than mourn over others’ misfortunes. We must gather the fragments, repair the mosaics, and create the designs that bring new light.
That intellectual work can be its own kind of mosaic—an assembly of ideas from an array of disciplines. With the launch of a new year, we should rededicate ourselves to the collaborative artistry needed to repair the things that are fractured. As students, you need to see faculty working together on these mosaics—and to imagine the mosaics of your own future. In time, you may blend botany and sociology to develop crops and farming methods that bring relief to drought-ridden regions. You may blend biochemistry and ethics, discovering new chemical compounds that counter infectious diseases, all the while committing to public health, rather than massive personal profit, in the distribution of medicines. You may be among the teachers, pastors, politicians and social workers that help parents and legislators collaborate to improve urban schools. You may work with anthropologists and historians to recover the documents and artifacts that reconstruct the lives of people who have been silenced in the past. You may join economists and community activists who strive for the right balance of enterprise and equality in order to promote neighborhood development. None of these are addressed with simple compassion; all these require the knowledge, collaboration and strength of character to find new arrangements of ideas that rekindle hope.
The figures in these windows also remind us that our faith is rooted in a specific story—the biblical narrative of the Hebrew people and its expansion beyond ethnic and political boundaries as it led to the worldwide Christian gospel. At the top of the center panel is Elijah. In the right panel is Aaron, high priest of the Exodus. To the left is David, a crown on his head as he tilts on his throne. They are, in short, the prophet, priest and king from Hebrew tradition and history. They proclaim the need to approach God with the mystery and reverence of Aaron in the tabernacle. They affirm the need to speak boldly against injustice and immorality with the anguish of Elijah. And they should remind us that, if granted power like David, we must rule with wisdom and fairness. But all of these biblical figures are broken images themselves—literally collections of fragments, even as Elijah, Aaron and David often failed. It is only in Jesus—the central figure in the mosaic, standing there beside his tombstone—that the roles of prophet, priest and king were truly fulfilled. And he did so by becoming broken himself, like the shattered glass in my father’s garage.
In a moment we will recite the Apostles’ Creed, a custom at this service. Developed in the early centuries of the church, the Creed was most likely composed as a confession prior to baptism. In reciting it we affirm our place in the rich mosaic of the Body of Christ, the long tradition and the broad community of Christian believers. The words that we read today are virtually the same as those recited nearly two thousand years ago along Roman roads. They are the words that will be recited this Sunday in Nairobi, in Buenos Aires, and in Beijing. But you will also hear in the Creed—which was crafted to affirm both Christ’s humanity and his divinity—reminders of his brokenness: his suffering under Pilate, his execution and interment, his human pain.
So, as we recite, imagine your voice among the medieval worshippers. Imagine it as well among the voices in a Johannesburg cathedral or within a New York soup kitchen. And let us reaffirm our desire to discern, as Christ did, what is broken and discarded, to find the sacred in what has been displaced, to discipline our hands and minds to gather remnants into patterns of community and purpose, and to allow light to shine through lives and into places that have been left too long in darkness.