Accessory to the Word
By Stan Friedman | Photographs by: Bjorn Amundsen | October 1, 2014
In an age of instant information and immediate response, Covenant theologian C. John Weborg embodies a deep and continuous engagement with community and Scripture.
John Weborg slowly and deliberately made his way across the podium and took his seat on the stool behind the lectern as he prepared to preach at the opening service of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The theme of the gathering that year was the centrality of the word of God, the first of six Covenant affirmations.
“If the word of God is central, I would think this is the first thing we would ask: What does it say?” he said that evening. “We’re not looking for an email message from God. We’re looking for a biblical perspective, and you’re not going to get it in one night. The book takes a while to read. This is a long story.”
The point is one Weborg returns to again and again: the Bible is not a commodity to be consumed quickly and thoughtlessly. It is capital that gives us “a resource on which to draw and a perspective with which to look at questions and at life.” And it is capital for everyone, including the socially separated and the spiritually silenced.
In the span of that one sermon he referenced the philosopher Aristotle, early church father Athanasius, Reformation theologian John Calvin, contemporary Scottish hymnologist John Bell, and the arrest of several hundred undocumented workers at a meat plant in Iowa. He was prophetic and pastoral, erudite and plain-spoken. The occasion was but one example of why the North Park Theological Seminary emeritus professor of theology has been so influential in shaping how Covenanters engage the sacred text.
Charles John Weborg was born January 20, 1937, and grew up in the small town of Pender, Nebraska, where his family attended the Covenant church. “The one thing that stays with me is that not once was the personal pronoun ‘I’ used,” he says about growing up there. “It was always ‘we.’ And the use of the plural pronoun ‘we’ says a lot about the farming communities in which I lived, because it was ‘we’ who worked together, and they understood each other as ‘we’ upon whom they could call.”
As an eight-year-old boy Weborg had what he says was the only emotional spiritual experience of his life. His parents, Reuben and Pearl Weborg, took him to a wedding at the Lutheran church in town. “The church was as plain as a Puritan meetinghouse,” he says, “but it had this altar up front with a statue of Christ with his arms extended. When it was time for the wedding to start, the pastor walked in with the groomsmen, and the first thing he did was to walk up to the altar and face the altar and pray. Then he turned back to face the congregation. I had never seen that before, and it spoke to me. The pastor paid attention to God first, the congregation second. God first—people second. I never recovered from that encounter with that altar.”
After that, he often pretended to be a Lutheran pastor. “I made two gothic altars out of cardboard and I’d set them up in the kitchen, and I’d wear my father’s coat for a robe,” he says. Then he would walk into the room, face the altar, and turn back toward the imaginary congregation to which he’d preach and serve communion.
“Oh, I’m a bit of an odd duck,” he says, grinning.
At the age of fifteen, he was stricken with polio, which paralyzed him from the hips down for months. Once he regained movement, he had to wear leg braces and undergo extensive painful physical therapy before he could walk again. He says it was the people and church in Pender who kept him from losing faith during that time. Not once did he doubt or question God, he says. “I had the word of promise. I had the church. There was the community.”
Weborg was deeply influenced by his father. “I would say he was kind of a wisdom figure. He only had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education so he didn’t have the theological vocabulary, but he made the connections. In the case of my father, there was a bond, a covenant—not an identity—between him and the soil. He also had a strong belief that you never own more land than you can take care of.”
The veterinarian in Pender, Vernon Lovell, was also influential in Weborg’s life. He often took young John on rounds, even though his legs were in braces. “He would recite lectures to me from when he was in graduate school,” Weborg says. “He didn’t tone down the language. He did not tone it down. If I didn’t understand a word it was up to me to ask. I had to look it up.”
Weborg accompanied Lovell every- where, even assisting with autopsies. He still grimaces as he recalls watching a cow being sliced open. “It’s not pretty, I can tell you.” But he peered through the microscope with fascination at the tissues of the animals. “The vocational battle in my life has always been between medicine and ministry,” he says.
He learned other lessons from Lovell as well. “If he thought he had missed examining an animal, he would drive back to that farm, and he would start all over again.” The veterinarian often sat down to chat with farmers, and he made time to share meals with them—even when it meant he had to significantly adjust his schedule.
The education and guidance Weborg received from his boyhood pastor, Sam Carlson, undergirded the thoughts and ministry of the future theologian and educator. “He was a university graduate, very highly educated, but he pastored a church of under thirty people,” Weborg says. The young people in confirmation classes with Carlson might as well have been taking a university course, he notes. “He was demanding.”
One day Weborg asked his mother how people knew whether they were Christians because he didn’t always feel like one. She said it was a question best answered by their pastor. When he returned home from school the next day he was surprised to learn she had made an appointment with Carlson and they were going right away. “She didn’t ask me if I wanted to go; she told me I was going,” he says. When they arrived at the pastor’s office, she left her son alone with Carlson.
So Weborg asked his question, and Carlson responded with one of his own. “Do you believe Romans 10:9-10: ‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved’?” When Weborg said yes, Carlson replied, “That’s all you need to know.”
“Notice,” Weborg emphasizes now when he tells the story, “he never asked me if I wanted to make sure. He never asked me if I wanted to pray. Not once. Not a single time.” Similarly, when he took his first communion after he was confirmed, he says, “No one ever asked if I was a Christian. We believed you let the word do its work. The church is the place where the word and the sacrament do their work.”
After high school he went on to North Park Junior College, and then to the University of Nebraska, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history, and where he met Lois Johnson of Galesburg, Illinois. They were married in 1958, the same year he began his studies at North Park Theological Seminary. After graduation, he served as pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Peoria, Illinois, and then as developer pastor of a congregation in Springhouse, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. While serving there he earned a theology degree from Princeton Seminary. He then moved to Princeton, Illinois, to serve as that congregation’s pastor.
He had no intention of leaving pastoral ministry, but Glenn Anderson, who was dean of the seminary, approached him, asking if he would consider replacing Covenant theologian Donald Frisk when he retired. Weborg declined, even after repeated requests from Anderson. He reasoned that he had promised the Princeton church to stay there at least five years but he had been there only three. Anderson was persistent, however, and Weborg relented only after two laypeople in the congregation, “who were the kind who would look you in the eye and tell you exactly what they thought,” told him that perhaps it was God calling him on. So he left Princeton, Illinois, for Northwestern University, where he earned his PhD in historical theology, with a focus on the roots of Lutheran Pietism.
In 1975 he joined the seminary faculty, and taught theology and worship for more than thirty years. “I viewed my vocation as teaching the faith as confessed by the church. I enjoyed teaching students the texts of the church, especially the texts that were foundational to the formation of Christian faith,” he says.
President Gary Walter describes being in one of Weborg’s first classes. “I realized I was in the presence of a true giant in terms of understanding the ways of God,” he says. “There was a presumption of profundity by the students.”
It was a presumption born of experience by students and colleagues around the world.
“I’m a member of the John Weborg fan club,” Lutheran religion scholar Martin Marty effused after his friend’s final sermon at the seminary. Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies and former president and dean of the seminary, recalls, “Some years ago John gave a paper for the theology conference of the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches. I was leading the activities that day and after John’s paper, several members of the audience said that they wanted us to cancel what we had for the afternoon so they could talk more with John. And so we did. Nearly the entire group of theologians and teachers from around Europe, the United States, and Asia gathered for a lively conversation.”
But profundity didn’t mean ponderous. Stephen Graham, former dean of faculty, wrote in the preface to In Spirit and in Truth, a festschrift published in Weborg’s honor, “It was John, after all, who once asked me, ‘Why shouldn’t the Apostles’ Creed be set to rap?’ if that would help cross cultural barriers and make the tradition more accessible to another group of today’s young people.”
His former seminary students will say that even more important than teaching the creeds, Weborg instilled in them a sense of wonder, love for the church, and the belief that theology should never simply be an academic exercise but rather done to praise God and serve God’s people. He has always been a pastor-theologian.
“John, in his gentle and perceptive way, breathes new life into the majes- tic traditions of the whole church,” retired Covenant pastor David Sundell commented in 2011 after Weborg preached his final sermon at the seminary. “His living out of theology, his grasp of historic connections, and his depth of spiritual vitality incorporates a comprehensive understanding of what makes the Christian life tick. He has helped many of us see light even in the dark valleys of the soul.”
Jodi Mullen Fondell, who serves as co-pastor of Immanuel Church in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote on Face- book, “He left me in tears so many times in his class….his deep desire was for people to have access to God’s love and all he ever sought to do was to open wide the doors for all to know this!”
It was Weborg’s concern that pastors be equipped to weather the demands of ministry that led him to initiate the spiritual formation and spiritual direction programs at North Park, both of which were pioneering for Protestant seminaries at the time. The Center for Spiritual Direction opened in 2005. It was renamed the C. John Weborg Center for Spiritual Direction in 2011.
Phil Anderson, the seminary’s emeritus professor of church history, says, “John was critical to the cohesion of the seminary faculty and its ongoing vision for theological and spiritual formation of clergy—among other things, gathering those who were around for afternoon coffee each day. ‘Free at 3?’ was his daily invitation to collegiality and hospitality.” It was a rhythm that Weborg had learned from the Pender farmers.
His North Park colleagues also experienced his wry sense of humor. The practical jokes he and colleague Burton Nelson used to play on each other are legendary. Weborg once left a large piece of Chicago concrete on Nelson’s desk and told him it was from the Berlin Wall. Nelson once faked a fall in the seminary entry-way and lay unmoving as if he were seriously injured. The act sent one of their co-workers into a fitful panic, but Weborg walked by and said, “Oh, Burton, grow up,” and without pausing continued up the steps. Weborg still seems astonished as he tells of walking out of the bathroom one day to find Nelson holding a hammer high overhead as if prepared to clobber his close friend. “Can you believe that! We just came to expect practical jokes from him at any time.”
Today Weborg’s community is back in Princeton, Illinois, where they live close to both their children, Clement and Catherine, and their six grandchildren. He and Lois had intended to stay in Chicago, but when their son moved further out of Princeton they decided to buy his home. Weborg is weakened by post-polio syndrome, but he gets around with the use of two canes and a special wheelchair.
“I don’t know if I’m peculiar, but it never really threw me,” he says of being stricken again by the disease that he once thought was behind him. “It could very well be that I won’t walk someday, but you see the other side of this is, I’ve walked from 1952 until now. Even if you date it to my wheelchair, which I’ve had about four years, I’ve walked for fifty years. Given what I had, I’m thankful that I’ve had that much.”
He spends a lot of time in what he calls his “workshop,” a large office in his basement. At the seminary, a chair lift enabled him to go from one floor to the next, but the steps at home are too narrow, so he must gingerly make his way down and up again, one step at a time. Books arranged according to topic fill the shelves that line the office and extend back into a small adjoining room that is completely devoted to volumes on spirituality. His large desk is covered with papers and books, including a 1776 copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible. There is no computer. The scholar boasts of never having turned one on. His daughter-in-law types all his papers and columns.
Occasionally he packs a lunch and drives an hour to Rochelle, where he spends the day watching one hundred or so trains pass through. “He subscribes to five railroad periodicals,” Lois says. “And there are stacks of them! They’re the most precious periodicals he has.” Weborg always has been fascinated with trains, but when asked why, he says he has no idea. “If you have some bent toward psychology, perhaps you could cure me,” he says, laughing.
In retirement he remains a theologian, student, and pastor. He preaches occasionally at the Princeton Covenant Church, helps with pastoral care, and teaches a course segment each summer at the spiritual direction center in Chicago two hours away. He works with people suffering from anxiety and depression at the Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic. He also ministers to victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence who have found refuge at Freedom House, located on the grounds of what was once the Covenant Children’s Home in Princeton.
Several years ago, Chris Pickett, chair of Covenant Children’s Ministry, and Harold Spooner, president of Covenant Initiatives for Care, asked Weborg for his help at Freedom House. “I really didn’t know anything about working with the abused,” he says. But he agreed to work with the women. He completed sixty hours of state training to become certified to work with victims of abuse. To hear him talk, he sounds as proud of that certificate as he was of his doctorate.
“I was on call to help victims of sexual abuse, so I didn’t know what time I’d be called at night to go to the hospital if someone had been raped or if a house had been broken into,” he says. “I had all kinds of calls, but I had to quit that because I couldn’t do it physically anymore.”
He continues to meet with the women who come to Freedom House as well as with staff. He doesn’t refer to his time with them as spiritual direction because “there’s a regularity in spiritual direction; we don’t meet on a regular basis but only as they feel they have need.” It is a ministry he describes as “draining, emotional, and challenging.”
Covenant Initiatives for Care created a promotional video featuring Weborg. In it he says, “Abusers attack the person they are abusing on the basis of an image, because if they can attack the image, the self-image of the person, and tear them down, they have a victim in their hands. It is no wonder the Bible begins with an image: the person is in the image of God. And as the Bible goes on, it’s that image that is never lost.” He continues, “And so the work of Jesus Christ is directed toward the redemption of ourselves, that is, people made in his image, and in his likeness. And he always addressed us with great respect, and with great care, men and women, Samaritans and Jews, public sinners or not, not a one of them was ever, ever, degraded.”
While the clinic and Freedom House attend to people’s physical needs, Weborg says, “We try to speak to the deeper image, of their createdness in the image and likeness of God, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the affirmation of that image.” He adds, “And more than that, his coming that they might have the fullness of their relationship, to God, because in that fullness they come to understand themselves as a gift, even to themselves, so that the fullness of their humanity, may be re-enjoyed no matter what is said to them or what is said about them. It is the word made flesh that confirms their created giftedness to themselves and to other people. It is this that we do, both in our physical and spiritual care and ministry to people.”
When the spiritual direction center was renamed in his honor, Weborg told the gathering, “I’m not quite sure how to understand tonight, because I’m not quite sure what I did.” For his many readers and students who have learned from him some of the mysteries of being alive in Christ, alert to life, it is obvious.
Click here to read a featured interview with John Weborg entitled “Doing Theology: A Conversation with John.”