Friday, May 15, 2015


"Originally a Christian Service of worship in the tradition of the Granville Literary And Theological Institution (1831) that later became Denison University (1856), this service holds forth one of the longest standing traditions of the school."

This is the beginning of the "Word of Explanation" about the Baccalaureate service this afternoon at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. The program note goes on to explain that the service's content is meant to respect the Christian heritage of the school and also acknowledge other traditions in "the pluralistic community that comprises our university today."

Denison no longer has a religious affiliation, so much of what we heard this afternoon sang the praises of the liberal arts. I've got no problem with that. My son, Kurt Grahnke, receives his bachelor's degree tomorrow with a major in German, a minor in philosophy and an intent to pursue more schooling in the sciences. Denison gave him opportunities to explore widely and deeply; it was a good fit for someone with his curiosity, integrity and intellect. And my own liberal arts education has served me well.

The theme of this service was "Wonder." There was this song to begin, with dancers in the aisle, a soloist, a choir and drumming. The poetry that was read and the address from the Reverend who is the university's director of religious and spiritual life located wonder in all of us and in nature and in relationships and what we do.

It went on and on, poetically, but no one phrase or progression of thought stuck with me. It was a catalogue of wonder in life, I guess. I can see my Lutheran forefathers rolling their eyes at the vapid humanism of it all. ("And just think--he never mentioned God, not once!") But I listened and felt myself, well, wondering, in the back row of the chapel, looking into a large pillar and the coved space above everyone's heads.

Wonder might be another name for religious impulse--feeling that there is something more than ourselves, that we add up to more than the minute-to-minute thoughts in our brains, more than questions and critical thinking, more even than liberal ideas. Calling it wonder may not take in the size of it all, or the impulse we humans have to take things on and grapple them into the mud.

The preacher (if he was preaching) mentioned almost entirely positive things--I think I heard  only one passing reference to the idea that anyone might suffer in life. And in the theme song wonder is the antidote to sadness:
If your heart turns blue, I want you to remember
This song is for you, and you are full of wonder.
Yet, I thought, there is wonder even in hard places. My daughter Eliza, a young woman with an intellectual disability, sat next to me at the baccalaureate. She and her way of being in the world are an unending wonder to me. I wonder at human endurance, human suffering, humans fighting back. Wonder is there in those who keep holding on to life in the midst of despair, in those who grieve, in those who struggle.

God in the suffering places--I don't know that this was gleaned from my "Christian heritage," but it is my religious experience. It is not the kind of wonder one wishes on new college graduates on a fragrant May afternoon. It certainly isn't something I contemplated at the age of twenty-one, when I graduated from college--book-smart but life-foolish. Yet wonder is the proper and human response to God in all things.

Here's the reading from the Christian tradition included in this afternoon's service. It's from St. Augustine.

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