Practice Resurrection

Editor’s note: Dr. H. Collin Messer delivered the below Harbison Chapel address on April 30 in recognition of being chosen Grove City College’s 2015 Professor of the Year. In his talk Messer teaches us something important about Christ’s resurrection and His purpose for professors and students. Messer says, “The resurrection firmly secures our eternal future but it also has important consequences for our lives here and now, for our pilgrimage on this good earth. Let me suggest that in his death and resurrection, Jesus not only saves us, but he also gives creation back to us. The resurrection recovers for us the goodness that was so severely cursed because of our rebellion. Our mandate to care for and unpack creation is thereby reclaimed and reshaped. Indeed, the great news for us as academics is that the resurrection affirms every square inch of our enterprise. For the Christian student, the love of creation is nothing less than the holy use of our intellect for God’s glory.” Read on, friends.

Thank you, President McNulty. This morning I am so very thankful for my colleagues and students; this is a wonderful honor chiefly because of the warm and thoughtful scholarly community that confers it. Thanks to ODK and the Alumni Association for their affirmation and generosity. I am also deeply appreciative of my parents this morning. Long before I had ever heard of Grove City College, they made major sacrifices for the sake of my education, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. Finally, many of us are all too familiar with how this vocation often requires that we and our families endure a journeyman academic life at least for a season. So to my wife Elizabeth and to my children Cammie, Grace, and Mac, thanks for being willing to move three times during the first six years of my work as a professor, putting up with a lot of uncertainty and yet growing closer to God and to each other because of that very uncertainty.

As you may know, I’ve been on a sabbatical this spring. The time to read and write has been a great gift, but to be honest, I’ve missed the classroom. It’s good to be back with you students, even in this somewhat fussy and formal setting. It’s also good to have a captive audience! This is my only lecture of the semester, so I’ll try to make it worth our while. In the church’s calendar, we’re still in Easter season for a few more weeks, and so I thought we might spend a few minutes considering the truth and wonder of the resurrection, particularly its relevance to our work and life together here.

The first selection on your handout is from Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer” poems. Please follow along as I read:

MANIFESTO: THE MAD FARMER LIBERATION FRONT

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.

Want more of everything ready-made.

Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.

Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag.

Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot understand.

Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.

Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion–put your ear close,

and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions

of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark a false trail, the way you didn’t go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

With this remarkable foregrounding, I want to explore briefly the theological meaning of resurrection, and then, from there, I’d like to offer a couple of ideas about how we might “practice resurrection.” The movement or pattern that we need to keep in mind here is from what God has done, to what we may do, if we dare to have our affections and imaginations shaped by the coming of the kingdom of God. The Resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate God-man, is the unique and singularly audacious feature of our Christian faith. Walker Percy (“The Last Gentleman”) calls it the “Christ event” the “Scandalous Thing, the Wrinkle in Time, the Jew-Christ-Church business, God’s … intervention in history.” Whatever else Berry is up to in this poem, the bold, invigorated, and prophetic life that he describes here is premised on the stubborn historical fact of Christ’s bodily death and resurrection. First and foremost, we should always understand Christ’s atoning sacrifice—His being crucified for our sins and raised for our justification as St. Paul says—as a redemptive act, rooted in history and validated in an empty tomb and a risen, glorified body. It is no metaphor.

However, the resurrection is not just a doctrine meant to comfort us as we prepare for a tidy afterlife. The resurrection firmly secures our eternal future, certainly, but it also has important consequences for our lives here and now, for our pilgrimage on this good earth. I think this is one way to understand Berry’s great and curious exhortation to practice resurrection. If we really believe this doctrine, how does it change our view of life here and now? Let me suggest that in his death and resurrection, Jesus not only saves us, but he also gives creation back to us. Through a resurrection that is the first fruit of a new Eden, Christ not only restores us but he restores us in this place in all of its actuality and particularity in the here and now.

This is the hard-won witness of Christians throughout the ages. Think about the words that many of us say every Sunday in the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Likewise, in the Nicene Creed the church has long confessed that we “look for the resurrection of the dead.” In light of these historical confessions, church historian Jaroslav Pelikan (“A Portrait of the Christian as a Young Intellectual”) exhorts us “to remember the struggle of the early church to assert and defend [these confessions] against those who identified sin with the material world. The trouble with the world, so the Gnostics maintained, is that it is made of stuff, which is intrinsically evil. In opposition to this the Christian faith declares that the material world is intrinsically good, encrusted though it may be with the scabs of sin and evil. Because it is intrinsically good, we ought to love it as God’s good creation.” The resurrection recovers for us the goodness that was so severely cursed because of our rebellion. Our mandate to care for and unpack creation is thereby reclaimed and reshaped.

Indeed, the great news for us as academics is that the resurrection affirms every square inch of our enterprise. For the Christian student, the love of creation that Pelikan describes is nothing less than the holy use of our intellect for God’s glory. A proper understanding of the resurrection thus invites us into a scholarly calling to discover and know and understand and describe the creation in a manner that is commensurate with our God given capacity for wonder. As the old hymn reminds us: He shines in all that’s fair.

However, for all of the wonder, Pelikan does use words like “scabs of sin and evil.” In our rebellion, we have often marred and abused this creation, whether nature itself or even worse, our neighbors. To love God is to love what God loves and to love what He has made, and that doesn’t come naturally to us. So, we can’t “practice resurrection” without first grappling with the madness of the farmer and the liberation he demands and hopes for on our behalf. On one hand, of course, the farmer is just cranky. After all, it’s Wendell Berry. Even for those of us who are his fans, (even if you’re planning to take Dr. Harvey’s class on Wendell Berry next spring), he’s a curmudgeon, bless his heart. However, Berry’s mad farmer is also like Dostoevsky’s underground man: he’s mad like a crazy person whose angry crack-up is largely a reflection of the insanity of the world in which he finds himself—a world prone to ignore its own madness. When confronted with such a world, Berry wonders if madness isn’t the proper response. As the Mad Farmer remarks in another poem: “To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain.” The great Catholic storywriter, Flannery O’Connor, echoes Berry’s insistence that we cry out against an insane age (“Mystery and Manners”). If the Christian writer hopes to reveal mysteries, says O’Connor, “he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. A purely affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.” She continues: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

In Berry’s poem the startling figures that should haunt us might often be so familiar and “natural” to us as to be easily missed. In its madness this poem makes unsettling claims on us—filing a minority report in its assessment of the American dream with its paid vacations and everything ready-made. The mad farmer insists that we seek not the liberation of the American dream, but liberation from the American dream, at least a certain stunted version thereof that reduces our citizenship to consumerism and our understands our humanity only via our glands and appetites.

So, the question begs, is there something more to life than creepy targeted Google ads or the banality of our Facebook newsfeeds? I’m thankful that the Mad Farmer doesn’t just rant. He actually affirms a number of things, and in closing I’d like to focus on just one: the richness and humility of place—this place—and how we might understand our work here in a new light.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

As a farmer and writer, Berry cares about dirt. I’ve read more than one essay of his that focuses almost exclusively on top soil (“The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture”), and he’s really thoughtful about it: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” However, there’s more to this business about humus and rotting leaves than first meets the eye. We do well to remember that humus shares its earthy etymology with words like human and humility. To giving loving care and attention to a place in all of its concrete particularity is to create opportunities for yielding the good fruits of culture.

If we have eyes to see, we’ll realize that some of the best scholarly work being done here at the College has a local concern. Some of it is in fact concerned with the dirt itself. Think about the work that chemistry professor Chuck Kriley and his students have been doing for the last several years, establishing vital baselines for measuring the impact of hydraulic fracking on our region’s ground water. Or how about professor Steve Jenkins and his team of colleagues and students? I’ve been watching them watch ants on the hillside behind HAL for years. No sluggard is he, but Jenkins looks to the ant, and his research is yielding fascinating insights. If we are willing to think about our local humus a bit more metaphorically, we can see even more good work. Our own professor Michael Coulter is a political scientist who has not only served on the Grove City Borough Council for the last seven years, but has also traveled to Harrisburg to testify as an expert witness before the State Legislature about ethics reform. All because he deeply cares about his native Pennsylvania. Finally, Dr. Jenn Scott-Mobley and her student interns are giving leadership to a service learning program that will thoughtfully enrich our connectedness and partnership with our neighbors here in Grove City for the sake of the common good. Novelist Kathleen Norris (“Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”) has remarked that “To attach oneself to a place is to surrender to it and suffer with it.” As we lean into the work Dr. Mobley invites us into over the next few years, many of us will probably feel more keenly the needs of our neighbors as they grapple with poverty, hunger, and hardship.

Any of us who have done serious research, or who have given deep consideration to pedagogy and classroom practices, know that it is often a humble business that doesn’t always or even often yield immediate results. Our vocation is often about planting sequoias that we will not live to harvest. In my own work, I’m hoping to establish a philosophical and theological framework for our continued interest in Walker Percy, with hope that his extraordinary novels still be read 100 years from now. That sounds a little crazy, unless I remember that I’m practicing resurrection.

Surely but mysteriously, the here and now has been redeemed for us, and our good work counts for eternity. In Mark 4, Jesus says, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” Because of what God has done, in defeating death and establishing his good, just, and gracious dominion over all things, let’s embrace together our work here in this place, with a great sense of humility, purpose, and hopefulness. As we close, will you please stand and pray with me, saying aloud together the prayer found on your handout.

Prayer for Vocation: Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.     

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

H. Collin Messer

H. Collin Messer

A native of South Carolina, H. Collin Messer is Professor of English at Grove City College, where he teaches American literature. Messer holds degrees from Emory University and UNC-Chapel Hill, and has published articles on William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Raymond Carver, and Walker Percy. He is currently working on a book-length study of Percy, in which he traces Augustinian influences and echoes in Percy’s work with particular interest in the existentialism of both.

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