Last Friday evening my wife and I attended the annual Gala celebrating Waterloo Lutheran Seminary’s graduates. The class this year was nearly 30 in number; young and not so young women and men who will make their mark in the world as counselors, chaplains, educators and pastors. It is always a proud and bitter sweet moment for us. Our students are the diamonds in the rough of the academy; they make our jobs worth the while even while they sometimes complicate our carefully crafted theologies and challenge our scholarly sense of self importance with the demands of teaching people rather than topics. We take this time to bid them well and adieu. Alongside this celebration, we also fêted Robert A. Kelly, our church historian who is retiring after 28 years at our school. Bob has been something of a institution in our institution. Students all have favourite Dr. Bob memories: his witticisms, his passion for the Gospel, his endless patience for students, and his utter lack of patience for entitlement and self-importance. Bob has been a compass in our community and we will miss him terribly.
Many colleagues and students stood up to recall fond, funny and formative memories of their interactions with Bob. As I listened to them, it struck me that this moment was one of those rare times in a life when you see something of the whole of someone. Random recollections from a broad selection of interactions gave me a richer picture of Bob. As I sit, now, and think about this it was rather as if I had been looking at a black and white picture that, for a moment, became multihued: or perhaps the reverse was the case, since both black and white and colour, too, have a peculiar beauty related to their different utilities. In my mind, black and white brings certain things into relief even while seeming to instill in us a sense of the ambiguous, mystical quality of life. Colour, by contrast, seems to celebrate not only diversity but also the utter incongruity of existence: how can it be that we are, rather than are not? Of course, both black and white and colour are good, true, and beautiful. We need to celebrate both the mystery of a person as well as their flesh and blood concreteness. We need to see both; to embrace both.
Friday was an important day for many reasons. It reminded us that we are a people composed of those who gather together. Next fall, when Bob is a visitor to our school, we will be a different folk. Our face changes as faces change; and this is both celebrated and mourned. This is both black and white and colour; both mystery and facticity – all nourished by memory. On Friday we remembered Bob and the students who leave with him this year; they are not gone, but they are differently present. Friday gave us opportunity to see who we were even while we anticipate who we will be. It was a moment to delve deeper into our identity; to remember that identity is slippery business, but a blessed business because we are remembered by God as well as we are remembered by one another. God knows us inside out because God sees us in black and white, and colour too.