Wednesday, September 18, 2013

For the feast day of Dag Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961)
The following is the essence of an unscripted devotional reflection I shared at a School of Divinity faculty meeting at Gardner-Webb University this morning.

Today is one of those unorchestrated happy coincidences of the Scripture text specified by the Daily Office Lectionary, the commemoration of a saint whose life strikingly embodies that text, and the occasion for reflecting on these things that makes possible serendipitous connections between them.

Today's Epistle Lesson is 1 Corinthians 2:1-13:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Today is the feast day of Dag Hammarskjöld, at least in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of you know something of his story (I first learned about it from James Wm. McClendon Jr.'s Biography as Theology, in which Hammarskjöld is one of McClendon's chapter-length test cases of what he proposes; I'm currently reading the new Hammarskjöld biography by Roger Lipsey). Hammarskjöld was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 until his untimely death on September 18, 1961 in a plane crash near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, with perhaps sinister causes, while he was en route to negotiate a cease-fire agreement in the civil war in the Congo during that era of the Cold War proxy conflicts on the African continent. (The BBC recently reported on calls for the U.N. to re-open its investigation of the crash.)

In the aftermath of the crash two things were discovered that documented a rich personal Christian spirituality few had known about. His briefcase, thrown clear of the plane's wreckage, contained a yellow legal pad on which Hammarskjöld had been working during the flight on his own translation into Swedish of Martin Buber's I and Thou. Later in his New York apartment a journal was discovered in which Hammarskjöld had been recording his spiritual musings dating back to the completion of his undergraduate studies in 1925, with the last entries recorded a few days before his death. The journal, later published under the title Markings, revealed a long period of doubt and searching that continued until 1952, when not long before his surprise election as U.N. Secretary-General he experienced a profound personal re-embrace of the Christian faith in which he had been nurtured during his childhood and youth.

Three brief entries from that journal, the first dated New Year's Day in 1953, not long after his experience of owned personal faith and only a few months before his election as U.N. Secretary-General:

For all that has been--Thanks!
To all that shall be--Yes!
(Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964], p. 89)

From later in 1953, sometime not long after his election as U.N. Secretary-General:

Not I, but God in me. (Markings, p. 90)

And this, from still later in 1953:

He who has surrendered himself to it knows that the Way ends on the Cross--even when it is leading him through the jubilation of Gennesaret or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Markings, p. 91)

What one encounters in this last passage and elsewhere in Markings is remarkably similar to the understanding of the cruciform character of the Christian life in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer--that to follow Christ is to take up the cross, to come and die, to die to self, and to open up oneself even to death at the hands of the powers that be who, not understanding the cruciform wisdom of God revealed through the Spirit, thus crucify the Lord of glory and those who follow his Way.

Hammarskjöld was reticent about his spirituality in his public role, but he hinted at how it shaped his work in a speech during his first year in office as Secretary-General: "We cannot mold the world as masters of a material thing. Columbus did not reach the East Indies. But we can influence the development of the world from within as a spiritual thing."

Where did Hammarskjöld acquire the faith that seems to have guided his service to the world? One of the few other times he hinted at it publicly was when he addressed the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met in Evanston, Illinois in 1954. His host had offered to explain to Hammarskjöld the history of the WCC, and Hammarskjöld replied, "Oh, I know all about that! I was brought up under Söderblom" (quoted in Roger Lipsey, Hammarskjöld: A Life [Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2013]). Hammarskjöld was referring to Nathan Söderblom, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Archbishop of Uppsala who was an influential shaper of the institutions of the modern ecumenical movement in the 1920s and 1930s that led to the founding of the WCC. Söderblom was a neighbor and family friend of the Hammarskjölds during Dag's childhood and youth. In 1926 Dag served as a French translator for the landmark Stockholm Conference on Life and Work planned and led by Söderblom.

And that leads us to the occasion on which we reflect on these things, at a faculty meeting for discussing our ministry of theological education. We are entrusted with the task of forming the future Nathan Söderbloms--who may become known or may remain obscure--who in turn will influence the future Dag Hammarskjölds, who, whether noted by others or not, will have opportunities to "influence the development of the world from within as a spiritual thing." That can happen if we are faithful in forming our students in the cruciform wisdom of God revealed by the Spirit.

Let us pray toward that end:

Heavenly Father, who have taught us that the peacemakers shall be called the children of God: Grant that, like your servant Dag Hammarskjöld, we may always seek to live at peace with our neighbors, and to reconcile those living in strife and enmity; so that in this way we may follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect by James Kiefer)

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