Monday, October 18, 2004

Another Holy Friendship

These are some thoughts I put together a couple of weeks ago. I post them now in homage to another of my good friends. My friends of all stripes are forcing me to think through all kinds of issues of faith and "spirituality." I rejoice in my good fortune -- and take the opportunity to crow about the high quality of my social circle.

Since I undertook this journal with the honest assertion of self-aggrandizement, I allow myself this opportunity to celebrate and boast of another holy friendship. (In the “Acknowledgements” to my M.S. thesis, I said something like “An acknowledgements statement is an author’s way of boasting of the quality of the company he keeps.” That’s what’s going on here – although I hasten to add that the sentiments I express are genuine.)

Bjoern spent a couple of days with my family and me (truth to tell, much more time with me than with my family) as a kind of time of farewell. He is leaving his parish in South Dakota to move to Washington state to accept a new call. He came 4-1/2 hours (each way) to give us a little time together, for which I am very grateful. It was a time to confirm that distance will not separate us, and it was a time to spend some “quality time” together, affording an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in something we both love – viz., talking about theology (and a little politics, too).

Bjoern is a pastor of the ELCA, although he was born and raised in Germany and is a German citizen. That means that he has a really fine accent. (I am a sucker for accents -- German, Scandinavian, and Greek especially.)nHe also has a keen mind (and knows far more than he ought to at his tender age) and a way of coming right to the point in a discussion. That makes conversation a little daunting, but he is also a whale of a lot of fun to be with (although his wit is so wry that it is often two minutes after he comes out with a line that I realize he was joking). He is reflective and eager to both educate and learn (which explains the length of some of our conversations this week.

Bjoern also has as clear a vocation and dedication to parish ministry as I have detected in anyone. He shows himself dearly to love being a pastor, and what is even more important to me, he “gets” the importance of being a pastor to people. He is a theologian, a preacher, a presider, a teacher, a counselor – but he is not a parish administrator or a congregation’s CEO. He has an amazing ability to “liturgize” his parishioners’ faith – rightly recognizing both the need for and the relevance of various rites and offices (some of which he composes) to “contextualize” his ministry. So, in his rural parish, he has celebrated mass under a tent (because an anniversary celebration attracted more people than could be accommodated in the church building and he didn’t want anyone to be relegated to the basement or another over-flow room); he has celebrated on a farm to raise prayers for a good growing season. Insights in how to bring the people’s faith to an existential expression simply flow from him. It’s quite exciting to hear him talk.

Well, while he was here, I was scheduled to go to my class on the Book of John’s Revelation (Apocalypse), so Bjoern accompanied me. We shared a Bible, and there were times our heads were inches apart as we both poured over a text with Prof. Koester to discern its structure and meaning. As we did so, I glanced over at him once and felt much the same warmth, satisfaction, solidarity, and security from sharing the faith as I had in my eucharist with Jim (see an earlier post). There seemed such a fittingness that I was able to share the Word of God with this brother in the faith, with whom I had discussed the faith, the Church, the foolishness of humanity until 3:00 that same morning.

As a Lutheran, I am well-trained in the “Word and Sacrament” construction. They are not two separate emphases in the faith. Both carry the presence of God; both are meant to take place together. And in both, are we brought to a sense of oneness with the rest of the Body of Christ. Some members of that Body are closer, physically and emotionally, than others. But both are “means of grace” – bearers of the certainty and the experience of God’s grace. Because that grace is relational, it is not at all unusual or untoward that participation in hearing and studying the Word and meeting the Lord in his Supper or in the waters of Baptism (or in the blessings of Marriage, for my money) brings the parties to a sense of community. And when one is able to join that sense of community with one’s close friendship and love for those integral to his life, there is almost a sense of ecstasy (and I’m not inclined toward mysticism).

I think this says something about what faith is, how it operates in our lives, what it feels like. And I think what it says is not often attended to in Lutheranism. We rightly experience a sense of mystery-personified about and in life in the Church. It matters “existentially” (one of Bjoern’s favorite words). This is something that many of the saints have taught us: Francis and Clare
, Benedict and Scholastica, and such (and notice that the examples I cite do not involve lovers). We are brought more deeply into relationships with loved ones on earth when that love is lived out in the context of the Church’s life – worship, Bible study, celebration of the sacraments, service to those in need. And contextualizing those relationships by that joint involvement in the life of the Church is just so also sacramental.

This, at least, is what I “knew” while I was with Bjoern over the Bible, sharing some wine and food, praying. I am most sincerely touched and grateful for his gesture of grace and love.

I shall miss having in the (relatively speaking) neighborhood. But I know that I shall know his presence in my prayers and in the mass, when I gather with the saints of today and of yore -- all the saints present in various ways.

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