May / June 2009
Written on the Heart, Stephanie Frey, editor
Loving Both God and Nation Asa's Hope and HeartacheHope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, that has been given to us.
Our May / June issue is depicting how Christians live with dual loyalties — our primary love for God and the respect we bear for the nation where we were born and grew up. In this column, our writers deal with racism and preaching, experiences as military chaplains, how one congregation has been serving the public through its connection to the Civil War, and, lastly, an episode of how one family walked alongside an aging parent, both a pastor and veteran. Our thanks to Andrea Walker, Summer, New Jersey; Jeff Zust, Joppa, Maryland; Frederick Wentz, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; David Valen, Plymouth, Minnesota; and Rich Melheim, Stillwater, Minnesota.
Speaking Hard Words
In January, the first African American president of the United States was inaugurated. It was a splendid occasion with abundant signs of unity and togetherness. I fear that because of such a momentous change in our country, many will believe there is no longer need for dialogue about race. Yet, this conversation that evokes fear even in me must continue. I attempted to move past this fear when I explicitly named racism for the first time at St. John's in Summit, New Jersey.
It was April 2007, and all over the media were the horrendous words that radio celebrity Don Imus used to describe the Rutgers University women's basketball team. He slandered them when they should have been applauded for their victory. I couldn't ignore it. But if I did talk about what Imus said, I would have to talk about racism. How was I as an African American going to talk about racism with my predominately white congregation?
I didn't want to say the word racism aloud, nor did I want to think about it or admit its effects in the larger culture and on me. Even I can sometimes be lulled into thinking that because of the progress made by people of color in all aspects of life, racism no longer exists. How was I going to say that it still did exist, in my comfortable position as a pastor of color in an affluent white congregation that I deeply love?
The gospel reading for the week after Imus's statements was from John 20. The text tells of the peace Jesus breathes as he traverses the barrier of a closed door to visit the disciples. I wanted to convey the ability that this word of peace from God has to reassure. The sermon had as its subject the power of words versus the power of the Word. I talked about Don Imus's words, the effect that they had on me as an African American woman and on the young women he defamed. I said racism aloud; it was in the air for all to hear. Referencing the ELCA social statement Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture helped me give a classic definition of racism and the church's explanation of what this insidious evil does to us all.
Finally, I talked about the power of God's Word to speak peace, to bring people together across barriers that would divide them, and to build authentic relationships — in fact, we ourselves at St. John's are proof of and witness to that power.
To my joy, this sermon sparked immediate conversation. After church, several white males wanted to understand why Don Imus was attacked for saying something said by many in the African American community. As best I could, I reflected on the dynamics of that community and assured them that countless Blacks object to anyone using the words Imus used. There were many words of thanks for the sermon and for dealing with such a difficult issue.
Naming racism in this and subsequent sermons has freed members of the congregation to talk to me about the sexism and injustices they have encountered in their daily lives. It has helped us foster ongoing open discussions in our life together. I no longer fear that racism or any injustice will have the final say. Addressing racism and injustice in preaching aids the national dialogue and helps us as God's people take the needed steps toward God's beloved kingdom.
Summit, New Jersey
I prefer to live with my hopes than with others' doubts.
I go to work with my congregation — soldiers and their families who do not attend my church, but belong to my parish. For more than 22 years, I've seen how their lives reflect their commitments and the costs of their vocation.
In 1525, a professional soldier and political advisor named Asa Von Kram had questions about his service and turned to Luther for pastoral help. Von Kram probably served in national battles from the Balkans to the local Peasant Wars in Germany. Like soldiers from many generations, he struggled with his experiences as he tried to integrate his life with his work.
Luther's answers are significant pastoral guidance for leaders (Jus ad Bellum
). For soldiers, however, war is personal (Jus in Bello
). Like Asa, their lives reflect their hopes and heartaches. Asa wanted his service to work for God and the government. I believe he wanted his hopes to be worth his heartaches. His prayer may have been something like the following experience:
While standing in the aircraft door moments before my first jump at Airborne School, my jump buddy yelled in my ear, "Chappy, I've got a prayer for you — 'God, I hope that this stuff works!'" I said the Amen
and stepped out the door. After hitting the ground we half-ran and half-limped to the assembly area when he told me, "Chappy, I have another prayer for you, 'Thank God this stuff works!'" I believe that these emotions are the heart of soldiers' prayers: grounded in both their hopes and heartaches.
Soldiers are expected to make something good happen. They hope their work produces the outcome they desire. Our surgeon responded to an attack on a wedding that wounded a 12-year-old girl, shattering bones in her upper arm and thigh caused by AK-47 rounds. Doc refused the advice from other doctors to amputate her limbs. After the operations, he and his medics made weekly visits to her home to perform physical therapy. Soldiers accompanied him on these trips and watched over her home because she feared "the bad men" would return. We didn't think they would, but they did. I watched an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team remove a live grenade from her living room. These soldiers were targets, and every visit involved personal risk. In time, they rotated home and didn't get to see her walk to school again.
Soldiers do not get to see the good their sacrifice produces. One month before leaving Iraq, some of my soldiers on a neighborhood patrol were caught in a complex ambush of projectile and small arms fire. The exploding projectile killed the team leader, amputated both legs of the gunner, and temporarily blinded the driver with cuts to his face. They were the lead vehicle and had to move to protect their convoy. The team saved their buddies this way — the driver controlled the gas and the brakes, the gunner without his legs steered the vehicle while the guy in back put tourniquets on his legs. Later at the hospital, the gunner's first words when he came out of surgery were, "They got my legs, but they didn't get my hands!" The team leader's wife wrote a note to be read at her husband's memorial ceremony. She reminded these soldiers of past dinners in her home, told them she continued to pray for them, and invited them for dinner when they returned. She met the plane when they redeployed. The gunner is running today.
In 2004 I escorted a group of Korean War vets who were visiting Korea. One of them said that when he left Korea in 1952, he didn't want anything to do with the country. Not one thing that happened there was worth the death of his friends and the trauma he experienced. Then his son married a Korean, and she had his grandchildren. He visited her family and they showed him their Korea — modern and functioning. He told me, "After 50 years, it is making sense; maybe something good did come of it."
A young soldier named Marshall Storeby summarizes this stewardship in explaining his actions in Vietnam, "Everyone was walking around saying, 'I might not be here tomorrow, so it doesn't matter what I do today.' I began thinking that I really might not be here tomorrow, so everything I do today really matters."
These stories are snapshots from the motion picture of my ministry and summarize the heart of Luther's ministry to Asa. The gospel needs to be present as soldiers train, serve, and return home from the violent intersections of their faith and work. They pray that their service will lead to thanksgiving. I pray that God will bless their stewardship and fulfill their hopes.
Young men, brought in from the fields of battle at Gettysburg, lying for days on boards set out across pew-backs at Christ Lutheran Church, the wounded and even the dying telling volunteer nurses about love of God and their mother, and their willingness to die for their country. This is the scene described at that very place, with fitting Civil War era music and sing-along, on eight Saturday evenings in the summer. We call it Candlelight at Christ — Songs and Stories of a Civil War Hospital
In the last decade, 6,000 visitors to Gettysburg have been inspired and educated at these hour-long programs that represent a congregation's unique opportunity to serve the public interest. No Scripture is read, but we do sing Isaac Watts's scripture-bound version of heaven in the hymn, "There Is a Land of Pure Delight," which also figures in the narration. The concluding quotation belongs to Abraham Lincoln:
With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
The readings in the program draw from firsthand accounts in diaries and a detailed account by one of five women who came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and were volunteer nurses for several weeks.Light in Greenland
A highpoint in the stories comes when one of the Lancaster nurses, having spent the previous evening helping a young soldier die, comes early to the church and finds an old woman sitting on the steps, hoping to find her son. The nurse takes her behind the church to a burial site where she claims her son's body and hears about his dying moments. The nurse is deeply impressed with the woman's spiritual strength, drawing on her Christian faith and her loyalty to her nation.
Attendees often tell us they were deeply touched, and many return repeatedly. One man from Vermont said that this program was the most impressive Civil War program he had seen in his 50 years as a student of that war.
The Candlelight at Christ program has been presented for ten years to appreciative audiences from all parts of the country.
Six hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, in northern Greenland, there is a small military base called Thule (tool-ee
) operated by the United States Air Force. Built during World War II as a bomber base, it has been a radar site since the days of the Cold War. Its mission is to maintain continuous surveillance of the polar route in order to detect an attack by manned aircraft or missiles.
The long runway is now used only to transport supplies such as food and fuel and to bring troops in for a one-year remote (no families) tour of duty. There are about 150 airmen, mostly radar technicians and operators, but also support personnel. Since Greenland is governed by Denmark, several hundred Danes live on the base as well.
For one memorable year — 1973 — I was the base chaplain.
Like every military base, Thule had a small chapel, and Protestant and Catholic services were held there each Sunday. The chapel programs were typical of most civilian parishes, and participation was excellent — there weren't a lot of options! But morale was high; we had all volunteered to serve our beloved country no matter where we might be sent. And we believed in our mission.
Several weeks before Christmas, an event occurred which stirred the entire community into a frenzy of activity — the lighting of the Christmas tree. It wasn't really a tree, of course, since there was no vegetation of any kind on the icecap. Our tree was constructed of two-inch steel pipe, rising perhaps 25 feet, and "branches" sprouting from the center "trunk." Because it was dark 24 hours a day at this time of year, few would have noticed the colored lights, not yet lighted, strung all the way to the top. On the appointed day, all personnel not watching the radar scopes gathered around the tree and watched it explode into brilliant light. We were experiencing the vision of Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." At the same time, we marked the start of Operation Julemand.
This annual event grew out of the conviction that we should share not only our faith, but our resources, to reach out to our neighbors. Our only neighbors were the inhabitants of six small Eskimo villages some 60 miles to the north, which included 150 children. Operation Julemand raised over $10,000 to buy toys and educational materials for these kids. It was my great good fortune to be able to fly back to the States to purchase a gift for each child. On Christmas Eve we loaded the toys, movies, and ice cream aboard a helicopter and played Santa Claus to our neighbors, swooping in on each of the villages.
The exuberant joy was visible in the face of every Greenlander we met. They knew what was coming and had looked forward to this day for weeks. Later, landing back at the base, we sensed that we had enabled our Greenland neighbors, who walked in darkness, to see "a great light" — the light of Jesus carried far, far out on the great Greenland ice cap.
"Here's Looking at You"
It was the toughest weekend of my adult life. A week earlier they found my dad pacing the halls at 3 a.m. in his best suit with Bible in hand. The retired World War II-vet-turned-pastor thought he was supposed to do a wedding and was wandering and wondering why his ride hadn't arrived yet.
On Thursday the assisted living place called and said Dad was found at the outer door at 1 a.m., about to head out into the 20-below-zero Minnesota night. They asked him where he was going, and he told them he thought he was supposed to help someone. He just wasn't sure who. They brought him back to his room. He sat on the bed and sobbed for a half hour. "I think I'm losing my mind."
They called Friday morning and said we needed to find another place for him to live. Someplace with better security. Now.
I talked to my sisters, then drove to Moorhead to spend the weekend looking for alternatives. We had a pleasant, lucid, wonderful day with fun conversations as if nothing had happened. As if nothing was wrong. We ran errands and did some banking. Then we stopped at Dilworth Lutheran Church and looked at the 10 years of confirmation photos on the rack, naming names of all the kids he had confirmed as a pastor back in the `50s and `60s. He remembered nearly every one. After a wonderful dinner with my daughter Kathryn, a student at Concordia College, we prepped for bed.
At 3 a.m. I awoke to hear a sobbing prayer, "Please God, make the blood stop. Oh Lord, hear my prayer." It took more than a moment for me to register where I was and what was happening. I found him in the bathroom dripping in dark red blood. It looked like something from a CSI
episode. His nose was bleeding mercilessly. Blood covered the sink, the floor, his pajamas. It trailed into his bedroom where the rug and sheets and waste basket were caked.
I pulled the emergency cord by his bed. Two nurses appeared and worked on him for 45 minutes while I mopped, sprayed, and prayed. It finally stopped. He finally slept, propped up in his lift chair.
Saturday morning we drove to Jamestown to a place where my sister Ruth had lined up an appointment. It's a nursing home where some of her friends have parents. Good reputation. Only blocks from her house. Bright, clean, cheerful. All one level. Nice chapel. "Good food," said three of the residents we interviewed. The folks there wear wrist bands that trigger an alarm if anyone happens to wander out in the middle of a North Dakota night. We shared a nice dinner. He took a long nap. Supper. Then we watched PT-109
back to back.
, the old soldier-pastor who had served in the Pacific during World War II thought out loud: "I wonder how many guys were left behind on those islands? Never rescued. How lonely that must have been."
played, Dad clearly remembered and chuckled at the lines: "Play it again, Sam ... We'll always have Paris ... Here's looking at you, kid."
As the credits rolled, Dad said: "I saw that movie in Los Angeles in January 1943 just before I shipped out." Moments later the announcer said, "Casablanca
was first aired in Los Angeles in January 1943."
Bright and early Sunday morning we attended my sister's church, Trinity Lutheran, in Jamestown. At coffee we were served by a woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Erstad. "Her son Darrin is the World Series champ outfielder," Dad told me on the side.
We introduced Pastor Ray to both of Trinity's pastors and I told them they'd be getting a new retired pastor joining the church soon. "We'll have to put you to work," we joked.
On the drive back to Moorhead, out of the blue, Dad asked me, "What should I do if they ask me to preach?"
"What do you want to do?" I asked. He thought for a moment.
"I think I'll let the younger guys do it. I could just do some visitation for them at the nursing home. Bring bulletins. Cheer some of the old people up."
Dad will be 89 soon.
We stopped at Hornbackers and bought eggs, bread, and Depends. I remembered from college biology that potassium can help to prevent blood clots, so I bought extra bananas.
Granddaughter Kathryn came over and helped me load Grandfather's Grandfather Clock and a nice oak table into the Subaru. "Better take 'em now," he said.
I helped Dad lie down for his afternoon nap, kissed him, and stroked his hair. He patted my hand. "I don't know how much time I have," he said before drifting off."
"I know, Dad. I know."
I watched him sleep for a while before I left. Then I drove out of the parking lot. Then I drove back and watched him sleep some more.
Here's looking at you, Dad.
(This first appeared in The Melheimian Sabbatiblog
, Feb. 9, 2009. http://faithink.blogs.com/rich/2009/02/
)Stephanie Frey is lead pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Spring Grove, Minnesota, and editor of
Written on the Heart.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).