Tag Archives: Memoir

Blessed grief

My eighty-nine year old father will soon pass. His health has deteriorated significantly in the last year as he as moved from ambulatory to bed-ridden, assisted living facility to nursing home, and now to hospice care. In the last week and half, he has been in and out of the hospital, and over the weekend we had serious conversations with him that the end is near unless he would choose to override his living will which rules out extreme measures to prolong life. He understood and didn’t change his mind. Today, he will be returned to his nursing home and will spend the last days in hospice care.

We called his sister and a sister-in-law from his hospital room, and he heard their voices on speaker phone. With exertion, he was able to whisper “Hi”. They were able to express their love and say their goodbyes. When the word spread, others called. Family gathered in his room, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dad smiled at our jokes and with each new arrival. Pastor Trish from our home church in Upsala, Minnesota came, and we shared bread and wine and many tears.

Even though I tend to be an emotional person, easy to come to tears, I am surprised at just how teary I have been. My cheeks are wet as I write this. But it’s good. It’s so very sweet. This is a holy time, and each memory, each phone call, each labored breath is sacred. My yoga-instructor daughter would say we shouldn’t avoid the pain but embrace it as part of the fullness of life. We can learn from Eastern religion. God is in our tears.

Long remembered stories are told again. Pictures are popping up on Facebook. I add my personal favorite. The scene is from a Minnesota winter in which we sat in a steamy sauna and then ran outside and rolled in the snow. The picture shows Dad returning inside, and you can see the snow in his sideburns; the exuberance demonstrates his essential nature.Dad and sauna

More than any person I know, Dad has loved life.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  Isaiah 25:6

Yes, my dad ate the marrow—literally. And stinky cheese, pickled herring, venison steaks barbecued in the fireplace during the winter months, and he drank his homemade wine made from Basswood blossoms picked at Cedar Lake. The way he  relished rich foods serves as metaphor for his life. With a flourish. As he savored a tasty morsel, he had a characteristic flick of the wrist which said, “Yes, life is good!” Amen.

Though I cry, I am not sad but joyful. Along with so many others, I have been blessed to have him in my life. Thanks be to God!

When Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber talks, Lutherans listen

Nadia Bolz-Weber

I was one of 500 or so who packed the sanctuary of Central Lutheran in downtown Minneapolis last night to listen to ELCA rock star, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, as part of her whirlwind tour to promote her spiritual memoir, Pastrix.

Rev. Bolz-Weber, a tall, slender, dark-haired, heavily tattooed, “cyber-punk” pastor and a self-described “cranky, post-modern gal of the emerging church a la Luther,” rocked this audience, much as she did the 35,000 screaming teens and chaperones at the most recent ELCA youth convention in New Orleans. The irony is that her counter-culture appearance and hip language born of a prior career as a standup comedian (I’m sure last night was the first occasion that “F-bombs” were dropped inside this hallowed sanctuary) is used to convey a decidedly mainstream Christian, especially Lutheran, message (grace and redemption, saint and sinner, death and resurrection).

I first encountered Rev. Bolz-Weber, long before she became famous, about the time I started this blog back in ‘09, and she had started her own called Sarcastic Lutheran. At that time, I read a story in which her mission church startup to “my people,” the House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, had provided sanctuary to a lesbian teen who had been booted from her own home. Though Bolz-Weber is straight (she talks about her really cool and good-looking husband), she has been an outspoken LGBT ally. In 2011, Pastor Nadia offered the sermon at the California Rite of Reception for seven gay, lesbian, and transgender Lutheran Pastors. One of them, Pastor Ross Merkel, had been defrocked by the ELCA in the early nineties after he came out to his Bay Area congregation, but the congregation kept him in place and a newly-elected synod bishop did not object. Pastor Nadia calls Pastor Merkel her spiritual mentor, and she embraced Lutheranism in his adult-confirmation class after a childhood of spiritual abuse in a fundamentalist, patriarchal, congregation.

Again, an irony. This outsider and pastor to the outsider has been embraced by the ELCA establishment. Though there were youngsters in the audience last night–including a carload of teens from Iowa who tweeted while traveling north on I-35, “We’re coming! Don’t start on time!”—the audience was mostly middle-aged Lutherans, even elderly, including several hundred clergy from the Twin Cities area.

Before encountering Pastor Merkel and Lutheranism, Pastor Nadia had experienced spiritual healing in AA, where she became sober “by the grace of God and in the fellowship of other recovering alcoholics.” I share this journey with Pastor Nadia, and I have given talks entitled, “I learned all I needed to know about grace in AA.” She also credits a couple of years of Wiccan involvement for healing the patriarchy-inflicted, gender scars of the church of her youth.

Queer Clergy cover jpgJust released this week, Pastrix is already appearing on best-seller lists. As an author whose own book will be released later this year (Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism), I must confess to more than a little envy. Maybe I should hire her publicist.

Herbert W Chilstrom Autobiography

Eighteen years after his retirement as the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom is still a commanding presence, standing straight and tall with his characteristic white hair. At the recent Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, Herb and wife Corinne always had a cluster of well-wishers hovering around them in hotel lobbies, in the exhibit/lunch hall, or signing books in the registration area. When I had a chance to visit with them, I thanked Herb again for the kind words he offered in support of my forthcoming book, Queer Clergy (see below), and he inscribed a copy of his autobiography for me (A Journey of Grace). We joked that he expected that I should finish the 600 page hardcover book that first day. Well, it took me a week, and I  thoroughly enjoyed reading about the back stories to the early days of the ELCA of which I was only vaguely aware.

Chilstrom was raised in a poor Swedish family on the outskirts of Litchfield, Minnesota, but he became the face of the newly-formed Lutheran denomination called the ELCA. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) came into existence on January 1, 1988 as the result of the merger of the two largest Lutheran denominations in the U.S. (LCA & ALC) together with a moderate splinter from the Missouri Synod (AELC). Chilstrom had been the bishop of the Minnesota Conference of the old LCA before his election to be the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.

He steered the fledgling church through rocky shoals during two four-year terms. Immediately, the church was buffeted by conservative theologians who decried the drift toward other mainline denominations such as the UCC, Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Methodists, preferring instead a rightward tilt toward Catholicism, the Missouri Synod, or the burgeoning evangelical community. Among other things, critics decried the democratic, egalitarian structure of the new church and the loss of influence for white, male, pastors.

This was hardly a new battle. The fault line could be traced from the reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, through 19th century Scandinavian lay-revivalism and Darwinian debates, into the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century, and on to the post-WWII culture wars of the religious right.

Within the first years of the new church’s existence, the conservatives seized upon the LGBT quest for full participation as the bogeyman to frighten parishioners in the pews. When the gay community persisted in seeking the church’s blessing, like the Gentile woman in Luke’s gospel, Bishop Chilstrom was conflicted in a classic confrontation of unity versus justice. The frail new church had no deposit of accrued legitimacy, no ballast to keep the ship upright, and the gales whipped her sails. It was all Chilstrom could do to keep the helm from spinning out of control, but he did so, and the church survived her tempestuous early years. His autobiography poignantly revisits his internal wrestling by quoting his own journal entry from the early years:

I continue to wonder how I got into all of this and how I can carry such a load … I feel so divided. I wish so very much that this church was ready to accept [gays and lesbians]. But it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. So I must do my duty. I must support denial of ordination for them. I feel very torn apart by it. At times, I even wonder if I should resign because of the conflict between my conscience and the stance I must take as bishop.

It took over two decades for the church to finally break down the barriers to full LGBT participation. At the recent 25th anniversary Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, there was a sense that the church had reached calmer waters. With a new captain at the helm, and a woman at that, the church boldly surged forward, sails unfurled with a fair wind and following seas.

Presiding bishop-elect Liz Eaton appears to be a suitable heir to the progressive and pastoral leadership that has passed from Bishop Herb to Bishop H. George Anderson and, most recently, to Bishop Mark Hanson. Strong leadership has been a hallmark of this church, and the church is excited that Bishop Liz Eaton will continue that legacy.

Awhile ago, I provided Bishop Chilstrom with a copy of the book manuscript for Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, and this is what he wrote about it:

“I can’t imagine a more comprehensive review of the journey of various churches in dealing with the issue of inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the church than Holmen has encompassed in the pages of this book. Though deeply involved in these issues before, during and after my time as presiding bishop of the ELCA, I learned much from this book that had not come to my attention. I commend Queer Clergy to any serious student of the subject. This remarkable book will serve as the definitive text on the subject for a long time to come.”

Click here to Like the my Facebook page and to read the eBook (PDF) Preface to “Queer Clergy.”