On this week of Memorial Day, I am inside, looking out. I know it is suddenly summer time. To me, that has always meant both the challenge of mountain trails, the wonder of high peaks and their far views. The peace of my daily paddle up a quiet river, but also hours of sitting on my summer deck, thinking long thoughts about life, and faith, and churches and ministry, and writing about them all, and what they mean to me, and what I pray they can mean to my fellow Christians, the church of Jesus – so precious to me now, in my old age.
Today there’s a sadness in my soul, about being inside and not outside, about sitting sheltered in my little alcove and not sitting in the stern of my Old Town canoe and “paddling the Pine.”
Part of it is a little struggle of identity: of not being able to drive across America to the hills of home where so much of me was fashioned. It is that question of who am I in this world, especially now that I have come to last days, and the awareness of having had a long life that so many do not get to have. And I don’t mean a life of sitting, and thinking, and writing, but a life of declaring what I believe to be true, and of persuading others of the wonder of the One Who is the “Truth,” and therefore the very “Way” to “Life,” itself.
Because of that One Who is the Way of Life itself, I am aware that I have never been a comfortable part of the groups of the world in which I was growing up: the prep school to which I was sent and where I was even a leader, my college, my theological seminary, the towns where I lived, the churches where I served. I was the uncomfortable one, the outsider if you will, because the Truth I loved and tried to serve was outside the bounds of the pleasant and easy associations others seemed to have.
And this day I pick up the Spring Issue of the Union Collective, the magazine of that graduate school of which I was never a comfortable part. The cover picture is of a crowd of more or less young people engaged in a protest march, lifting signs that read, “Eco-Justice Caucus at Union,” with a cover heading of “Hearing the Cry of the Earth.” Inside are stories of “Ecowomanist Vision: A Union Story.”
Nor have I for years felt really part of that school that gave me great teachers like Reinhold Niebuhr and the Old Testament scholar, Dr. Muilenberg.
A recent funny correspondence with a wildly white-haired retired college professor, a fellow resident here, spoke of his minister on the coast of Maine who knew me and delighted in describing me as a “Harvard-Union Seminary Evangelical” – a combination that is just not supposed to be. All mutually exclusive categories. I laughed and shared in my friend’s delight. Of course, those titles are all a contradiction in terms.
Something in me would love to be accepted by each of those worlds. But it is not to be. Nor does it need to be, especially at this stage of the game.
Too many decades have passed for me to be trapped by any one of those identities. Much more precious to me have been the words of dear and long friends, who have written – by way of birthday greeting – words from their own deep heart, of simply what my life and their life together, have meant to them. And they all have to do with the journey we have taken together as friends and comrades, beloved brothers and sisters in that fellowship that Jesus gave to the world, invited all who would, to join Him. It is that company of people known originally as those of “The Way,” committed to the One above all others Whom God sent into the world to be “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
What an honored fellowship it is. How deeply those of that company recognize each other, and are sustained and upheld – in love – by each other.
It is the company I want to cultivate, and want all whom I love to be part of it – finding wholeness, true life within that company. And so find ourselves strengthened to meet the crises of life, to walk through its deep valleys, whether pandemics, or war, or the fear of loneliness.
I pray to be a friend to all whose hearts are open, to joining that beloved company, on their way together, to their forever-home, in heaven.
Love to you, on this journey.
But when, we want to know. Thinking about the predatory nature of the Coronavirus, the feeling grows that one evil attracts other evil, and that in the context of hidden enemies who seem to strike at will, it seems easier to fall into confrontative feelings and be more ready to do violence to others.
Does one find, if violence is being done by others, we could ourselves fling a fist, wrench an arm backward, push someone to the ground? Especially if he had made a fresh remark, taunted us, seemed to sneer at our authority. Maybe we would put a knee on the neck of someone who was down, and twist a little harder if there was resistance.
I don’t believe we just grow up “racist.” I believe we grow up into violence. We grow up ready to pay back. We fight in schoolyards for our rights.
What we don’t know how to do is talk. Just talk. Talk the language of someone who is confronting us. And “talking him down.” Talking civilly, quietly. Reasonably. Even use a little humor.
Those are responses we often learn at home. How to end an argument. How to not fight. How to acknowledge differences. How to make peace.
The Bible is full of peace talk. Jesus was teaching peace all through His ministry. He was, after all, the Prince of Peace. In confrontation moments “He never said a mumblin’ word.” Before Pilate the Governor, who held His life in his hands, He waited to speak, until the honest, obvious truth He told as the Man of peace.
We would do well to study Jesus’ interpersonal relationships. His control over His own heart and spirit.
It’s a fearful thing to get caught up in the Devil’s talk. To taunt. To tempt. To provoke. Those who cry out in our city are right. Horrible things are done, demonic, angry things.
There was a young police officer who spent his working life wearing a uniform. But his sense of himself, conveyed something different than uniforms often do. He always spoke of himself as a “peace officer.”
All of us who call ourselves Christians, are peace officers. We are here to not only keep the peace, but to make peace.
Twenty-five years of our working life in the Pilgrim Center for Reconciliation was spent in countries of the Genocide in Africa. Terrible wrongs had been perpetrated. We were sent, by World Vision – and by God – into Rwanda, to see if somehow peace was possible.
God gave us forgiveness – the way of saying sorry. Of repenting. Of beginning again. Our retreats gave us settings where we could concentrate on that. What happened between people was miraculous. The laying down of old feelings, of hurt and resentment. Of people who had only hated, in three days’ time finding they could love. When it happened, they themselves always knew it was a miracle. Even in our angry world, there are ways to “overcome.”
Perhaps even a whole city can pray for that.
For love of city and of neighbor, your friend,
For many years I’ve made it a private discipline to go alone to Lakewood Cemetery in the mid-morning, to just sit there with a fascinating variety of people – marked particularly by white-haired older men, as a way of celebrating Memorial Day.
The Police Band was there, and usually Robert Robinson, the gifted tenor, and his group. A South Minneapolis pastor by tradition gave a prayer for peace, and a military person spoke.
It was hosted by the president of the cemetery, himself. I always found it a moving experience. I felt I was sitting there “among the patriots.” The people who wanted to show up for that because they loved America. Because they wanted to hear America’s songs, and simply be among America’s people. Perhaps they would have a family picnic later. But at least, on this day they would honor the fallen, the young and the brave who went off to foreign fields to stand in the ways of the mortars and bombs, the tanks and the troops of those countries that stood for very different goals in the world and who were taking the lives – in prison camps and gas chambers of those who were their opponents.
Those who fought America’s wars were not war-mongers or oppressors. Some of them were even pacifists. But they somehow believed America had created a land that was free and that wanted to be just and fair, and they would go to far-off fields and lay down their lives, if necessary, to help right prevail in the world.
All tricky business of course. In taking risks that might take everything they had. It seemed a small thing to sit among those who were remembering and giving honor to fellow countrymen who paid such a price.
Over the years I found others, friends of mine, parishioners, people I’d married, or been privileged to be their friend long ago.
We would meet by chance after the “exercises” were over, and greet each other and remember our own relationship. They were often quite different folks. But we were glad to find each other, and renew the ties of friendship. They felt like little reunions to me as we were slowly walking along, thinking our long thoughts.
I love tradition. I love remembering. I love the sense of being, on a red, white, and blue day, once a year, part of a group of people who cared. Just quietly, and alone.
I would even wander off, on my way out of the cemetery, to find the graves of people I’d buried there, long ago, in my pastoral life. One was the grave whose headstone read “The Little Mississippi Girl.” A fellow Rotarian who was a funeral director had asked me if I would do the service for a little baby girl who had been found along the banks of the Mississippi River – left there, perhaps by a distraught young mother who didn’t know what to do with this child who had been born to her. There was no family. But a service was held and the funeral home was packed. We even gave the child that name as we did the service. It is on her headstone to this day.
All part of that place of memory. That place to remember. That place of many stories. That place I will remember.
A lovely, colorful handful of cards came in the mail this May 21st, my birthday. Phone calls came too, before I was even awake. Both brought congratulations that I had reached 91, and was still alive.
They were all encouraging words to me. One sweet young friend, from a very early confirmation class, said, "Hello, Arthur. I re-read some of your blogs today. It is so comforting to 'hear your voice.' Every 'touch' by a friend is so much more precious in these days of isolation. Love to you and Molly."
Then, she went on to say, "Looking forward to seeing you at the Hilltop on Thursday."
That hit me with a pang of sadness, because this very day our Laury has sent an email word to 30 or 40 of the wonderful band of brothers and sisters who have made a tradition of gathering with me by the fireside in the patio of the Hilltop Restaurant at 7:00 am to introduce ourselves round the horseshoe table with our names and the important things on our hearts, with prayer and reading of a scripture passage for the day. And finally they allow a little teaching by the old man. It all closes with common prayer around 8:30.
You'd think they would duck for the door. Instead, little clusters gather, and talk, and "renew the tie that binds."
It is a sight to see. And our pals, Ken Johnson and son Brett, the owners, not only don't charge us for the room, they work around us as they clean up and allow this group of 20 or 25 Christians to disperse at their own pace - with their blessing.
And so this Advent-Lent motley group of Christians have not only grown deeper in their faith, but in curious ways, they have become a little Christian company of brothers and sisters, sharing a precious and important, and life-changing love for each other. So often I leave, having witnessed the hand of God and the working of His Holy Spirit through this company of His people. Deeply moving to me.
So, it hurts to have to say, "We cannot yet keep our promise to gather back at the Hilltop." The Governor has said, "No," and we are committed to caring for each other from afar. Somehow God will open a way.
Maybe, when the time comes, you'll be able to join up, and we can be side-by-side, and - most of all - heart to heart around Jesus, the Risen Lord. Please pray for each other, and for this little group of your friends.
Your friend, too,
On this morning's news, I heard a little clip from Great Britain. It was from Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and heir to the British Crown. He was apparently standing in his garden, thinking about many Britons without jobs when it dawned on him that there was a great need for help in getting in England's next harvest.
Workers from Europe would not be able to come, but how about Britain's own temporarily unemployed?
That simple call for help brought back a flood of memories to me of the summer after my first college year, when England, struggling to recover from the ravages of the Second World War, issued the same appeal for young people from everywhere to volunteer to "Lend a Hand on the Land" by coming to England to help gather the harvest.
It was a chance to help. It was 1948 and I went. It turned out to be a solitary adventure for me, with The National Student Association, to go help England gather its food for the next year.
We went to the fields of East Anglia, just beyond Norwich, England, to the flat marshlands known as "The Broads." We lived in quonset huts, a great mixture of students from across the world. It was a cold, dank summer, but, we worked the fields alongside German prisoners of war and each other.
We worked hard, we made friends, and at summer's end we traveled modestly in Britain. Entertainment was conversation and writing in our diaries. Mostly, it was a chance to help.
While it was a chance to serve, it was mostly youthful adventure. But, we did know it was making a difference.
These days are not so different. The enemy is invisible around us. An unfamiliar virus - in the air, lying in wait, and wreaking havoc with those who catch it. And, for many, there is the same sense of "call" - to come help. If you're not a doctor or a nurse, you can still help your neighbor. Think of kindly acts - and, just be kind. Make a phone call. Write a note. Above all, PRAY. For this land, and its people, its sick folks, its hospitals, its medical responders, its political leaders. Do what we can. A thousand lessons to be learned.
So much we can do, right here at home. In a way, the answer is to undertake an adventure. Do what maybe you've never done. Reach out. "Lend a Hand." And, a heart to brighten the world right where we are.
Love you all,
On a warm spring afternoon this week, I sat on a bench among lawn and trees between the buildings of "Covenant Living" and our quiet street, St. Croix Avenue, here in Golden Valley. I was busy trying to pick up my 35-year pleasure of just sitting and trying to sketch what I see.
A woman passing by on the street called me by name. "Is that you, Arthur? I can't quite tell, with your mask." Nor could I at first distinguish her, for the same reason.
We both live in a Senior Residence trying hard to keep any of our 200 or so residents from catching the omni-present virus called COVID-19. So, outside our own apartments we are urged to wear masks to cover half of our face. No smiles are revealed. No teeth shine. No wrinkles wreathe our mouths in signs of welcoming friendship. We depend on eyebrows, and hair color and styles. Even the clothes commonly worn by our fellow residents. So far, we remain cheerful about it all.
One man who conversed with me briefly in the elevator, wrote me, in his distinctive "hand," a letter on lined yellow legal pad paper. He said something like, "Seeing you in your mask, with your white hair and your black, seemingly ministerial jacket, and self-effacing way, reminded me of a story by Hawthorne, called, "The Minister's Veil."
He seemed to be offering a reflection on the hypocrisy of cover-ups. Of hiding what you really are, or think. He referred to the use of masks in the theater, and the role they played in ancient Roman amphitheaters.
Then, he turned back to the idea of ministers, and gave the famous saying of Boston's Phillips Brooks, who spoke of preaching the Gospel and truth offered through personality.
I think my friend's concern was that we not let the call of preaching be corrupted by the clothes, or manner, or other masks we might - perhaps inadvertently - use, thus being unfaithful to our calling.
It was, of course, a sobering reminder. It all was probably not personal. But masks do change things. Cover-ups hide truth.
Jesus calls us to be honest about ourselves. "Become as little children," He says, honest and open. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life"..."The truth shall make you free."
As people of faith, lovers of Jesus, we all want to be "truth-bearers." We want to be what we purport to be. We do not want to be actors. "What you see is what you get, " as that idea is translated today.
What makes the Christian fellowship a body of deep, authentic relationships, is when the "company of believers" is transparent, made up of people who are true, and not hypocrites.
That is life-long work. And it is what every genuine seeker wants to find among the Christians. Nothing phony. No misleading mask. Always the real thing.
It's a reminder for us, in these days when masks are worn to protect others, as well as ourselves. To keep unseen germs from spreading. To protect life itself.
So, as they say, "Stay well. Be safe. And bless you."
As I look up from my legal pad, I see the spring sun shining on the false peaks that crown the walls of our courtyard apartment. Beyond is the blue of the truly spring day the weather people have promised us. I am sitting in a large comfortable chair in my little alcove study, where I think and write.
When I rise to answer Molly's call to lunch or dinner, or to swing around the corner for a short bathroom run, it's not a dash, or even an easy walk. More like 20 steps of lurch. Even at first there are twinges in the knees, and legs that no longer spring.
I know perfectly well it is more inaction than old age. Although the latter sings a siren song of ease, and rest. "You're doing good work. Take it easy. It will be all right." In fact, it won't. I need to move - every half hour or so.
When I venture downstairs, other white-haired folks are moving about. Some, quite fast. They're in their 70's or even 80's. But, my own Molly, at 89, moves fast.
So, I wait for the Flagship Health Club - part of Lifetime Fitness, to open. It has my favorite rowing machine. I can walk a zig-zag around the perimeter of the gym. with the aid of my Cheyenne River Indian staff, from Leslie Bobtail Bear, my dear, deceased brother there. I can lift a few weights. I leave, clean with a shower, some locker room bantering - feeling as though I've done something. And just a little bit stronger.
Their opening will make spring a little bit sweeter for me. It's a step toward helping me feel better: that I've done something for health, beyond simply eating all those pills, and getting transfused with something or other that is helping my blood get back to normal again.
I pray for all that to be part of spring for me, part of making it for another year in the "merry month of May," and think about life, and try to live it for usefulness.
It calls for some be-stirring. It calls for prayer. It calls for a purpose in living. It calls for the walk with Jesus, deliberately heading out with Him, listening to His voice, heeding His call.
For I know He has a purpose for every one of His friends, of a journey of a mere twelve men who have changed the world.
All of us are part of the expanded twelve, who, fired by the evidence of an empty tomb, and the presence of a living Lord, they know the one sure thing, that "He is risen. The Lord is risen indeed!"
How then, can we not get going, and rise up and do what we can do, tell the story that we know so well, and invite others still, to come along with us - walking, talking, moving, learning, engaging all whom we may meet on the way.
Love you for life!
I love church. I miss church. I want to be back there again in that beautiful "Meetinghouse" place. But especially with those people who are my dear friends in Christ. The Christian company. That unique "body" of people who have, over the years, "covenanted to walk together in all His ways." And serve. And care. And do what Jesus calls us to do and be.
But, to help defeat the virus, I've been game to go to a different kind of church. They call it "virtual." There's a pianist. And a preacher. And a dear old guy - a former speech professor - who's read the scriptures to us for the last weeks. And, the former chaplain and Bible teacher at Minnehaha Academy, lovingly called, "The Rabbi," who runs the cameras that are making virtual church possible for us here at Covenant Village.
There's no congregation gathered around the preacher, our chaplain. We're all tuning in through the televisions in our apartments. And so, "church" happens. It turns out, that in many places where "virtual" church is being tried many more people are attending church than before. By TV, from home.
Who knows, what new thing may come out of this for the future?
After church, the camera panned all sorts of people, all over in places doing something to expand the spirit of virtual church: the staff ladies taking off with roses and poems for every mother in the community on Mother's Day.
And other people given chalk on a long stick to draw happy figures and happy words on our center's sidewalk. And happy faces and pictures. Even happy chocolate covered doughnuts!
Resourceful. People finding ways to cheer others up. To keep us all going - until the sign of the ALL CLEAR!
It all was a little lesson for me: Remember the little things that mean so much. Remember the lonely people who long for full life. And those grieving who've already lost dear ones who've died of COVID-19, who need a hand, a note, a call, and for sure, a prayer.
So many - out there - just waiting for us to come to them, in whatever way we can.
Know anyone like that? Maybe you're one... Let the rest of us know. We might really do it. Whatever the "it" might be.
Bless you, in the now. And, in the new day coming. The day that Jesus will bring. "I am coming again," He said.
Oh, He is, for sure. He promised.
Your friend on the Way,
It is Mother's Day, 2020, and I have had a quiet day with the mother I have known and loved the longest.
I used to wish her "Happy Mother's Day," but her cheerful response was, "I'm not your mother!" So, I left it up to our own five children to do the Mother's Day honors. And, they have all been faithful in ringing her up, on the Day, through the years. Two sons call and have long chats with her. Three daughters call, and often appear in person, with flowers especially for the mother, who, in their childhood, they used to call "The Wizard" because of her wizardry in fixing or finding all manner of things in their lives with which they needed help. She was the one who knew the answer, or where to find something, or how to get some place.
She also had ideas, and information, and reflection, and advise - coming at problems with a graduate school training and experience, and with years of practical child-raising, as well as a year of teaching in the public schools of Scotland the year of her graduate study there, and another year of crossing Harlem by bus from Union Theological Seminary at Broadway and 125th Street to change at the 125th Street station to catch the New York, New Haven, and Hartford train to teach fourth grade at her own growing-up school, the Greenwich Academy.
She was a wise and exemplary teacher, even in those post college years of her own youth.
She won highest honors from her Professor at Edinburgh University. Though she never let on about all of that to her children or anyone else. It was part of her innate humility. The same spirit with which, in her 60's, as we went together to Africa at the call of World Vision to find a way to bring healing to the people of Rwanda who had lived through the horrendous genocide of April - July of 1994, she asked God in prayer: "Why have You brought me to Rwanda? I have no skills. I'm not a doctor or nurse."
She later revealed what God's answer had been. "I have brought you to Rwanda to ask their forgiveness for what you and your people of the West, did to divide them from each other."
Molly took that answer seriously. Wherever we went after that, to churches, into our own healing retreats, if asked to speak, Molly said, "God has asked me to ask your forgiveness. I am going to my knees, to ask you to pray forgiveness for me and my people." It was a stunning act of authenticity and humility.
The Africans saw that Molly and our team were authentic. So trust grew, and our work of healing prayer became possible. Molly's quiet response became the hallmark of the work God had called us to do. It has grown through 25 years and continues to deepen and spread under two succeeding leaders, Todd Bertelson and now Dr. Jim Olson.
That same quiet work of prayer and washing of feet was the genius spirited insight that made that work possible. Molly often said, "We came as already old white-haired people. The Africans loved and honored old people. Also, I am a mother, and looked like a mother, and their healing needed the kind of love a mother gives."
Molly wrote the Teacher's Guide for our retreat leaders to use. She laughs and said, "I have a thousand stories." She still tells them, and our friends understand them, and called around to support this work. For all of us on the teams, it has been a wonderful adventure - a great "joining with Jesus."
So Molly, the mother, has been the humble instinctive teacher, with Pilgrim Center teams, with a host of friends, and with our own children and grandchildren.
Even now, in the days of coronavirus, Molly has helped all of us to live through these so different, isolated days.
When I was in hospital for 12 days for pneumonia, in the lock down quarantine section, I was the lonely boy. But Molly's one word was always, "Well, here we are!" So we were, and she helped me, and our family to accept the reality, and smile, and pray. She's been our prayer leader.
How grateful I am. I love and miss my own mother. Yet the most remarkable mother I know, is the one who birthed our children, and who cheers us all, along the way. Bless her heart.
During these Pandemic days, while I've been sitting through my morning and evening medical treatments, I've been reading - thanks to Molly's strategic visits to our limited Covenant Village/Hennepin County Library - several cowboy novels of the great West of our country.
Louis L' Amour is one of the great storytellers of that wide, wide world of the opening of the American West. He, and others, wrote of the period just after the Civil War as many headed west of the Alleghenies, took river boats down the Ohio river, connected with the Mississippi, moved into the Indian lands of the Sioux native, and on beyond to, and through, the Great Rockies and out on to California and the Pacific.
It was a wild time from the 1860s through to the end of the 19th Century. It wasn't only a rush for gold. It was a longing for land of one's own, of ranches, and cattle, of tiny towns, with sheriffs and U.S. marshalls, and independent people with guns, and horses, and a yearning to settle down in lands that were wide open, with a sense of freedom, dominated by men - and women who dared to leave Eastern cities and civility, and carve out new lives, new ways of living.
They settled issues on their own. They learned the ways of the trails, of the animals, of the weather, and of their own bodies, their own skills, and became hunters, and fishermen, and horsemen, and rough ways and rough talk.
They lived and loved out-of-doors, under open skies, and moved among canyons, and high tablelands, and around and through impassable peaks.
They wanted the same things: the freedom of that wide, wide world, the chance to start a new life, the opportunity to begin again, start fresh, leave old failures behind.
Today, my young business friends talk of going from success to significance, of the great "second act" of life, and finally, of "finishing well."
Those ideas came from St. Paul, who again and again, calls us to "run the race" of life, "looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." He tells his colleagues, "I have fought the fight, I have kept the faith."
What a challenge, to hold to our dreams, to keep ever after Jesus, to not lose sight of Him.
That seems a narrow goal, a limited concentration. But, it is just the opposite. Following Jesus, being like Him, is to embrace the world. It is to see the eternal significance in very small things. It is to see the infinite dimensions of one human life, the vast intricacies of a person, in a cause, in a life, that embraces hundreds of realities - like our own world itself, amazingly complicated and varied, down to the tiniest ant, and on into molecules that defy comprehension.
In these pandemic days we are pressed into the simplicity, least complicated things: wearing a mask for safety, keeping a distance from others, staying home, reading a book, watching the news.
How quickly our lives can be reduced, retracted, simplified, made less. Jesus wants them to be made more, made deeper, made wiser, made broader, working at having more friends rather than fewer. Phoning them up, writing them letters.
I plead for our remembering still, the "wide, wide world" out there. The more, and new people to meet, and serve, and love. The deeper and wider life to be lived.
A little like our own "westward expansion." But for us, the EXPANSION OF THE HEART, THE MIND, THE SPIRIT. The broadening and deepening of life - as we take time to think, to contemplate, to pray, to read the Bible - to find Jesus, and let His hand lead us toward the infinite, the wonderful, that is all around us.
Love you, friends.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
|Arthur Rouner Ministries||
ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES