I hadn’t realized how much I would miss Glen Wiberg until halfway through worship last Sunday at Salem. As soon as I opened the bulletin and saw a Lina Sandell song listed as the pulpit hymn, I knew my voice would tighten. But the tears began to flow as I looked over to Glen’s former spot in the pews, to the piano bench where he used to play “Day by Day and With Each Passing Moment,” and knew that he wouldn’t be in those places again. As well as our saints sang, I felt the absence of his voice.
Nor will it echo again from our pulpit. But as our current pastor, Mark Pattie, stood and preached from Peter’s first epistle, sorrow gave way to gratitude. For the apostle might as well have been describing Glen:
The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. (1 Pet 4:7-10)
To his end, Glen was both serious and loving, a disciplined disciple who showed great hospitality to me and so many others. I’ve known few who used their gifts better in service to others.
Among the many other tributes that we can pay him, we can truly say that Glen Wiberg was a good steward of God’s grace.
And as I thought of him as a steward, my mind reached back to another sermon, one preached the day before Glen’s death, by another member of the Covenant ministerium.
I’d been in Bethel’s chapel service, where Lisa Sharon Harper was the guest speaker. With power and insight, she shared themes from her new book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Its title evokes God’s description of Creation in Genesis 1, where the most remarkable creatures are given a very special mission:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (vv 26-31a)
As Harper goes on to explain in the book, “dominion” is an easily misunderstood word, bringing “images of European royalty, Chinese emperors, and Egyptian pharaohs… to mind.” But she points out that the Hebrew term in Gen 1:26 is unlike all the other words translated as “dominion” in English Old Testaments. Radah really means “to tread down” — as in, clearing a path through the wilderness. So the “use of radah conjures images of a new creation in need of stewardship” (p. 28).
What does it mean to be a steward? The second creation account in Genesis puts humanity’s charge this way:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15)
If we are stewards of God’s creation — of his manifold grace — then we are not kings or emperors or pharaohs. We are gardeners.
It’s a metaphor that my family can understand. My mother can make anything turn green. And her dad’s flowers regularly win bunches of blue ribbons at the Pierce County (WI) Fair. Grandpa is a couple years older than Glen, and fading fast himself. But as I sat with him in the hospital earlier this month, he told me fondly of adding the first rose bed to the family farm, side by side with his mother.
I’m afraid that line will end with me; I barely know how to shovel. But I’ve been around gardening enough that my favorite thing that Glen ever wrote starts with a woman planting flower bulbs in autumn: Katharine White, dying wife of E.B. White, who watched her “sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” Glen took it from there:
What a provocative phrase: “plotting the resurrection”! Katharine was a member of the resurrection conspiracy, the company of those who plant seeds of hope, seeds of tomorrow under dark skies of uncertainty and impending death; people going about their living and dying until, no one knows how, when, or where, the tender shoots of life appear, and a small piece of creation is healed. That’s who we are as God’s Easter people—those oblivious to the ending of our own days, calmly plotting the resurrection.
As members of God’s “conspiracy,” a maquis cell dedicated to resisting death, we do plot the resurrection. But as good stewards of a Church that will outlive us, we also plot a garden. We plan for its revival on the other side of any spiritual winter. Even if we are faced with, say, the impending death of a supposedly Christian America, still we will go about our living and dying: we will keep gardening.
Tomorrow Glen’s body will be taken to another plot, to be committed to grimmer ground. But first hundreds of us will plot the resurrection, in the same church where Glen once tilled soil, scattered seed, poured out living water, and gathered the harvest.
(If you think I’m making too much of the gardening metaphor… Here’s how Glen described his education at North Park Seminary, alluding to a passage from Philipp Spener’s Pia Desideria: “[Spener] says [the seminary] is like a nursery (not as a place for child care) but a nursery as a place for planting, pruning, fertilizing by Word and Sacrament, a place for the nurturing of pastors for the care of souls, for holy living” — Born to Preach, p. 50.)
Glen was well into his tenure at Salem when its centennial arrived in 1988, and it was only the third oldest of the five churches he pastored! By the time our congregation was founded, First Covenant in Youngstown, OH had already been around for two years, and Princeton (IL) for twenty. Even Glen’s first call — in Haddam Neck, CT — was already into its second half-century when he started in 1951; like North Park Covenant in Chicago, it had been established in 1898.
So while I understand the Covenant’s current enthusiasm for church planting, Glen’s career reminds me of the importance of tending spiritual gardens that were surviving scorching summers and frigid winters long before we arrived and began our plotting. As he and his generation of pastors and leaders end their days, I pray that those of us who take their places can steward God’s grace with equal faith.
Like any other form of gardening, that work is hard, frustrating, and not always rewarded quickly with the results we desire. So I’ll close with the words that the apostle Paul chose to end his most famous description of Resurrection:
May we, like Glen before us, “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).