02 January 2014

Secondhand nostalgia

When ministers and members of Northwest Yearly Meeting die, the pastors' e-mail list and other mailing lists often distribute families' and friends' remembrances of them, along with information about their memorial meetings and burials. We've had several such goodbyes recently. The one that hit closest to home for me was the death last week of Richard Powell, who along with his wife Mildred helped welcome us to Richmond, Indiana, and its Quaker community, back when we first moved there in 1982.

The remembrances we receive often include incredibly poignant testimonies of the person's impact on their children, congregations, and whole communities. The initial notice might be followed by ten, twenty, thirty or even more "reply all" responses from other recipients, affirming these qualities and these influences. I might not have known the person who died, since I'm a relatively recent arrival to the yearly meeting, but when I read about their strong principles, their prayer lives, their radiant personalities, suddenly it's clear how their children, whom I often do know, became the people I now admire.

During all my growing-up years, my own parents were staunch atheists, and any talk about religion was forbidden in our home. One incident might illustrate the resulting fear in me: I was standing outside the front door of our apartment building in Evanston, Illinois, one day, at the age of maybe 8 or 10. My younger sister Ellen was outside with me; we were waiting for our parents to come down from our second-floor apartment so we could go to Winnetka for ice cream.

A nice couple, probably husband and wife, approached us and asked us whether we liked birthdays. Did we know that we could have a second birthday--the day we gave our lives to Jesus? Wouldn't it be wonderful to celebrate two birthdays each year? All I could think of was the hell we would go through if our parents caught us talking about Jesus with these strangers. My little brain had no capacity to evaluate anything about the couple's message to us; all I could do was try to calculate the timing of our parents locking their apartment door, walking down to the landing, then down to the lobby, then out to the street.... As vivid as this part of the memory is, I draw a complete blank when I try to remember whether the dreaded encounter between parents and evangelists ever took place.

What a contrast to the remembrances of the departed saints we read about in these death notifications. Among the most powerful for me are the other pastors and church workers who testify to the mentoring and encouragement they received from the person who just died, and often from his or her spouse as well. And it hits me! These people, and others very much like them, have done the same for me! As I read about their family lives, what it was like to grow up in the circle of their influence, I feel a sort of secondhand nostalgia, as if I were being retroactively adopted into the family being described. But the actual influence on me, directly and through their children and communities, has not been secondhand at all. I feel as if the people I've known and loved in my church family--starting with Len and Betty Huggard, Deborah Haight, Anne and Barry Thomas, all those years ago in Ottawa, and continuing right up through the present, have more than made up for the gaps in my experience.

I'd be lying (or at least over-sentimentalizing) if I denied that, nevertheless, there's a big hole in all this retroactive nostalgia. I would love to be able to remember talking with my parents about faith and doubt, about the Bible and discipleship, about eternity. As my views on nonviolence evolved, I wish I could have talked with them about that notorious Christmas 1969 issue of Reader's Digest, the one that struck me (still a non-Christian) as being anti-Christian because of its editorial arguments for continuing to kill Communists until they simply ran out of young fighters. In the Christmas issue! When Ellen was murdered on March 28, 1970, and then was buried without a funeral, I felt totally isolated as my parents disappeared into a fog of hate and alcohol. (I wasn't sure what a funeral really was for, but when I came across the itemized bill from the mortician, I did realize that something was missing.)

Many years later, my parents' united front against religion cracked in the strangest way, in my father Harald's last months of life. When he was admitted to the hospital for what turned out to be the end stage of his struggle against cancer, he specified his religious preference as "Church of Norway." This was apparently translated into "Eastern Orthodoxy" by the clerical staff, who referred him to Father George, the Greek Orthodox chaplain at the hospital. Father George began visiting him, to my father's evident delight, and thus it was that, one day, when I visited my father, I found an icon on the wall above his headboard, and a little sign stating, "I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. In case of emergency call Father George," with the priest's contact information. Unfortunately, by that time my father was too weak for extended conversations, but I think he knew how happy I was to see that icon.

My father's memorial meeting was led jointly by Father George and by my father's cousin Axel Heyerdahl, who was an evangelist in the Evangelical Church Alliance. A sweeter and more loving combination of contrasting Christian traditions could not be imagined. To add to the mix, clients and staff came from my father's last employer ... Catholic Charities!

My mother Erika died eleven years later without, as far as I know, ever having relaxed her stand against the church.

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"Pussy Riot vs. Ksenia Sobchak, Round Two." Eliot Borenstein writes, "Sobchak, like much of the Russian media, seems incapable of believing that there are people in Russia who are absolutely indifferent to fame and fortune." Thanks to Sean Guillory for the reference.

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