“Pietism is the way the pastor does things”: Glen Wiberg (1925-2017)

“The [Pietistic] tradition still lives,” theologian John Weborg once reassured his friend, Glen Wiberg. “But to new people the word Pietism is an unknown word. Pietism is the way the pastor does things.” So while I appreciate having the chance to write a book on Pietism with my pastor, I wish that anyone interested in Pietism could just spend an hour talking with Glen, our pastor emeritus at Salem Covenant Church.

To our sorrow, however, you’re going to have to make do with our book: Glen passed away yesterday, having spent nearly 92 years “living hopefully, lovingly, and happily this new life” — which is how another of his many friends, philosopher Paul Holmer, once defined Pietism.

On my copy of his 2015 memoir, Born to Preach, To Intend Blessing, Glen inscribed a biblical reference:

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. (1 Cor 4:1, NRSV)

One of the mysteries of my life is that it intersected with the lives of two such servants and stewards, Glen and Jim Hawkinson, as those Pietist pastors entered what Glen called their “golden years of ministry” and I began my career. Invited to join their reading group, I soon shared stories with Glen of Yale, where he had studied theology and church history with Roland Bainton, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Sydney Ahlstrom. It was a surreal joy to find my adult self discussing books and debating worship styles with the same man who had edited the hymnal of my childhood and written the Confirmation textbook of my adolescence. Then in more recent years, to find my column neighboring his in the journal Pietisten.

Even in his eighties, Glen still preached for Salem every once in a while. (And on some Sundays when he didn’t, he would revive an old habit and walk from his pew to the piano to accompany the closing hymn.) But I know that I missed Glen in his prime.

Wiberg, Housing the SacredSo I spent some time last night in the Covenant Archives digital collection, where I came across Glen’s contribution to a 1954 sampler of Covenant sermons. Even as “one of the Covenant’s younger ministers,” Glen already preached like the pastoral poet I knew in another century. Taking his text from John 21, he imagined Peter looking out from his boat to see the Risen Jesus on the beach, “That single Figure of strength standing on the distant shore between the black night of despair and the purple dawn of new hope….” As he concluded, Glen returned to that evocative image:

As your pastor, I can offer you no hope apart from meeting this Christ who stands on the shore in every event of your life. He is always there when you need him the most, waiting to handle you his own way….

Beyond the discomfort of your sin, despair, and doubt stands the reality of this redeeming God known in Jesus Christ. I am hoping that some of you will be finding your way into the wide-open arms of Christ as Peter did that day by the shore. He stands among us still with the friendly offer of his Presence. Give us thy peace, O Jesus!

And may it be so today, as we wish peace to Glen’s memory. But as we remember him, we should also remember that true peace requires justice. That the Gospel he spent his life proclaiming is not purely personal or private. That the God he loved both “bears our sins in silence” and roars like the lion of Amos 3:3-8, as Glen preached in 1982:

What is so frightening and distressing to me in the Church today is how rare or even absent is the unmistakable voice from the holy mountain. A struggle to seize power? Yes. An effort is abroad to seize power, prestige, and influence for an evangelical majority that serve other ends than the Gospel. And there are many strange, alien voices. But no voice from the holy mountain! No roaring of the Lion! No faithfulness to the full-orbed biblical Word! No radical discipleship in following Jesus as Lord and perfect Example! No call to minister to Christ by identifying with the poor and changing repressive social structures! No vision of the God of righteousness—the God Amos saw walking on the top of the heights of the world! Yahweh, God Sabbaoth is his name!

In words that are as timely in 2017 as thirty-five years before, Glen makes clear that there’s little value in any Pietism that doesn’t seek both God’s glory and neighbor’s good:

Our evangelical tradition is done for if we cease to hear the Lion’s roar calling us to break our silence—to cry out against every perversion of the Gospel; to cry out against the exploitation of the poor; to cry out against the excesses of our standard of living; to cry out against militarism and the arms race and to say, “Enough! Enough!” But do we have the courage to look into the mouth of the Lion and to sense the enormity of both divine wrath and grace so that we become a prophesying community?

Glen Wiberg

“And now,” Glen observed in the 1954 sermon, “after the Cross and Resurrection which appeared as a puzzle hard to fit together, Peter could not be patient and wait until faith would clarify the mystery.” That puzzle is still a challenge, all the more so when death comes on the lenten side of Easter, where we are all too aware of our own, misspent mortality. But in my own, Petrine impatience with this most vexing of “God’s mysteries,” I found much reassurance in Glen’s memoirs. For example, some poignant words Glen shared from Salem’s pulpit in the summer of 1984…

The Sunday after his son Carl died of multiple sclerosis, at age 27, a grieving father preached from Mark’s account of the woman whose method of anointing Jesus confuses and angers his disciples:

One of the most difficult facets of suffering in many forms lies in the ancient question “why” asked by the disciples in protest to the breaking of the costly alabaster box and precious ointment. And asked if suffering like Carl’s and watching the slow deterioration of body and mind in one so bright and young we have to ask “Why this waste?”…

The good news I want to share with you is Nothing is Wasted, neither the precious ointment, nor the alabaster jar, nor its brokenness. For when all is said and done everything in the long run depends on God’s doing, where everything finally serves his purpose, gathering up the fragments in resurrection so that nothing goes down the drain, nothing at all is lost. It will be proclaimed in his remembrance, and to his glory. Amen.

With his declining health and my increasing busyness, we hadn’t seen nearly enough of each other when Glen’s memoir arrived in my mailbox in 2015. So I was astonished to find my name in the acknowledgments, where Glen thanked my colleagues and me for having organized a conference on “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity” six years earlier. “The symposium,” recalled Glen, “awakened in me the cherished history of beginnings of Pietism in my home and church. I also sensed in the lectures and discussions that followed a similar deep longing for spiritual renewal in the church today.”

But as Reinhold Niebuhr once said, in the words that Glen chose to conclude Born to Preach, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.” So now that Glen’s time in this life has finished, I can only hope that the book we’re writing will meet the “deep longing for spiritual renewal” that our friend sensed. I pray that Mark and I will pass on to others what Glen called “the gift of Pietism… to intend blessing with a thankful heart in my calling to preach and to bless all forms of human endeavor.”

Peace be to the memory of Rev. Glen V. Wiberg.