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First Presbyterian Church
February 17, 2008
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins
One hundred and twenty years ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins asked, as only a poet can, how we can let the quotidian mess of everyday life - trade and toil - blur our vision of transcendence. That is, how we can permit God's grandeur, so evident in so many ways, to "flame out," to disappear from ourselves and our world.
"And for all this," he says, every day, bad as the day before was, as much as we ignored the spirit there for the having, deeply as we disappeared into trade and toil, despite all this, nature is never extinguished, and "morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs."
"Springs" (what a superb, energizing verb) - "springs" into reestablishing the possibilities of transcendence, into the hope of reconnection with that divine grandeur,
"Nature," he calls it, "dearest freshness deep down things," springs every morning, "Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World" (bent, but maybe not quite broken) "over the bent/World broods" (this verb, "broods," reminds us of the God in Genesis who, the Hebrew says, "broods" over the cosmos before he separates light from the dark), "Over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." God's grandeur not only changes the world, but holds us close, like baby birds in the nest, so that we can, above all, because we are loved, feel.
Fifty years ago this May, in Tampa, an unlikely group of Presbyterian ministers and lay leaders, with few credentials and less understanding of the business of higher education, concluded a three-year exploration of the feasibility of creating a college by establishing the third such institution in Florida. That the original two such colleges, the first in Eustis, the second in DeFuniak Springs, had long since disappeared, did not put off this determined group.
Presbyterians, as you know, are famous both for their Scottish stubbornness and for their penchant for establishing schools, beginning with John Calvin's Geneva Academy. John Knox and his followers in Scotland created the first national programs of free public education, and their intellectual progeny were more influential than any other denomination in creating schools and colleges in the New World.
Long before 1958, it was clear that the Presbyterian DNA was inclined toward establishing schools to connect the world of God's grandeur with the world of trade and toil, the world of transcendent possibility with our earthly passage that "wears man's smudge and shares man's smell." The ringing phrase that justifies this determined connection between the mundane and the divine is the Presbyterian academic's insistence that "all knowledge is of God, and is one."
These were extraordinary men: The names that have come down to us include Hunter Blakely and Bill Kadel, Phillip Lee and Alfred McKethan - and from this church, Alton Glasure and Oscar Kreutz. These men had no idea, I am convinced, having read the stories by those who were there, no idea what they were getting into. But it was clear to them, as clear as a vision can be, that Florida in all its spectacular wildness, strangeness, newness, incredible seductiveness, a frontier and a magnet (as it still is) - for the old looking for Ponce de Leon's fountain, the young looking for pleasures of the tropics, the unrooted looking for a new start - it was clear to them, as it has been for Presbyterians since the Reformation began, that what was needed here was not simply a church, but a COLLEGE! A good one, an unconventional one, a creative, visionary one; a college as imaginative as the idea that first rate higher education could be had in a setting as indolent, as paradisal as Florida.
Florida Presbyterian College was begun with great enthusiasm and extraordinary support from the St. Petersburg community: Many of our fellow citizens, many non-Presbyterians who are about 65 to 70 years old now, have told me about going door-to-door to raise money to help attract this new College to the city. Our former mayor, Bob Ulrich, is only one of many who have told me they went door-to-door to bring Florida Presbyterian College to St. Petersburg.
But, the fact is that Florida Presbyterian College was begun with great enthusiasm, and not much more. People who were there at the time have reported that President Kadel said on his first day on the job, "Does anyone around here have any idea how to run a college?"
Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College, was also lucky: Bill Kadel was a great force of Christian vision. Jack Bevan, the founding dean, had no experience as a college administrator, and yet he attracted and selected a founding faculty of surpassing quality and commitment and, with them, designed an academic curriculum that is still nationally recognized for its innovation and brilliance. They established a tone, a standard, a vision, and an expectation of student performance that is still evident in every fiber of the College they created. Bill Wilbur and Ashby Johnson, Clark Bouwman and Howard Carter, John Dixon and Iggy Foster, Keith Irwin and Bob Meacham, John Satterfield and Pedro Trakas. These are the men who made a college of transcendent purpose and compelling vision out of hope and faith, sandspurs and palmetto.
Those of us who came after came, mostly, because we were moths to the flame of the light of that vision. No Presbyterian church has devoted more to the cause of the College, in good times and bad (and all new colleges have plenty of both) than the First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg. You have given us trustees - not only the incomparable Marty Wallace, but also Anne Hoerner, Royce Haiman, Beth Houghton, Susan Dobbs Key, Sam Mann, and Gene Oliver, among others - and the late and beloved Harrison Fox. You have given us staff and students and good wishes beyond measure, including this year's recipient of the Staff Member of the Year Award, Scott Rivinius, and talented professors such as Peter Hammerschmidt in Economics and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Peter Pav.
That is why we wanted to begin here the celebrations of this 50th anniversary year - because of your generosity of spirit to Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd, College, and because you symbolize the transcendent vision of the Presbyterian mind - that all truth is one with God and that knowing the truth will make us free. I want to thank you for that support of the College, of the idea of the College, and for your support of me, beginning with my inauguration - in this church - as the fourth president of the College nearly seven years ago. First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg is an enlightened community of educated men and woman, and Eckerd College is grateful to you. Thank you. Especially on this day, thank you, Larry Duncan, for sharing this pulpit for the first event of our 50th anniversary.
Eckerd College has now and hopes to sustain a covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church - an interactive, dynamic relationship with a Church that is in dynamic, challenging engagement with the changing culture of the 21st century. We ask for your support, your advice, your prayers for our prosperity.
In return, we promise - in the best tradition of American higher education - to question everything; to challenge every view, particularly the comfortable ones; to do what we can to redefine Christian values to fulfill their unprecedented and unsurpassed promise.
Colleges are, of course, capable of extraordinary hubris. We often think we know a lot more than we do. But we are also capable of unfettered wisdom: Our record on advocacy for social justice and equality for black Americans and women and gays is far better than the record of any Christian denomination.
And we are engaged - root, stock and barrel - in service to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry. Eckerd College students performed 62,000 hours of service ministry last year in this community, which I think of as 1800 students continually hearing Matthew 25:31-45, and Philo of Alexandria's immortal admonition: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."
Both the renewing experience of welcoming a new class of 600 or so students each fall and the increasing environmental awareness of those young men and women, our "baby birds," reignites for me and for my colleagues in our hopeful enterprise, the conviction that Hopkins had it right.
For all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And it is that freshness, that vital spark of the best in us, and the wisdom and courage to recognize and sustain it, that the Church proclaims and the College informs that unite us in our covenant.
Long may it endure.