My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The tragic case of William Freeman: A lesson in courage

The witnesses for the State...have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.” Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird

While it would be difficult to pin me down to a favorite film, To Kill A Mockingbird is certainly in my Top 5 (next to, say, The Shawshank Redemption and The Best Years of Our Lives). It's the movie based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Atticus Finch is the heroic lawyer who is willing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman in Jim Crow Alabama. He does so at great risk to his local reputation as well as his children's lives but defends the man anyway because, well, it's the right thing to do. Predictably, Tom is found guilty and before Atticus can file an appeal, Robinson is shot in his attempt to escape. It's a story that 50-some years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still speaks powerfully to matters of social justice and moral courage.

A great read
I've recently begun to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and just this morning read a portion of a chapter which focuses on the four major contenders (Lincoln among them) for the Republican Party's nominee for President of the United States in the 1860 election. Among the four was William H. Seward, an ambitious and affable politician from New York who got caught up in a similar moral storm as the fictional Atticus fifteen years before.

In 1846, Seward at forty-five years of age had already served New York as governor for two succeeding terms and had returned to private practice. In his home town of Auburn, a black man by the name of William Freeman had gone on a rampage and brutally killed a wealthy white man, his pregnant wife, their young daughter and his mother-in-law. The sheriff was lucky to get Freeman to the jail before a mob could lynch him. No one would take up his case and the locals threatened any lawyer with physical harm if he would dare to try.

As Goodwin tells the story: "When the court asked, 'Will anyone defend this man?' a 'death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,' until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, 'May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!'"

He immediately was censured and criticized by friend and foe alike. Why would he be so foolhardy to jeopardize his future career in politics by taking on a case he was sure to lose? But he took the case all the same. His investigation revealed that Freeman had spent five years in jail for a crime he did not commit and that while incarcerated he had been flogged repeatedly which had left him deaf in one ear and mentally unstable. He had confessed to the crime immediately upon his arrest but in Seward's estimation he was criminally insane. In his closing argument before the jury he pleaded "...he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man." “I am not the prisoner's lawyer,” he reasoned, “..I am then lawyer for society, for mankind, shocked beyond the power of expression, at the scene I have witnessed here of trying a maniac as a malefactor.” He begged the jury not to seek the death sentence. Rather, he should be committed to an asylum for the rest of his life adding: "there is not a white man or white woman who would not have been dismissed long since from the perils of such a prosecution.”

He expected to lose his case, despite persuaded of the justice of his cause - and did. But unlike Atticus in Monroeville, later won on appeal. Sadly, before Freeman could be moved to an asylum he died in jail.

At the heart of the storm, with public opinion against him and risking his future career, his wife, Nancy, stood by her man and wrote their son that “there are few men in America who would have sacrificed so much for the cause of humanity – he has his reward in a quiet conscience and a peaceful mind.” I'm sure Harper Lee didn't have Seward in mind when she wrote her novel (actually, she was thinking of her father, Amasa “A.C.” Lee, an attorney and Alabama state legislator, whose 1923 defense of a black client is the partial backstory of the novel's trial) but in reading Nancy Seward's sentiments about her husband I can almost hear a faint echo of Aunt Maudie telling Jem, “...some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us...your father is one of them.”

I'm inspired by Seward's display of moral courage, to do the right thing because it's right not because it's expedient or, God forbid, will look good on a resume. In Goodwin's estimation, his choosing to take this case as well as several other stands he took in his early political career on the grounds of social justice eventually cost him his party's nomination for president. Is that a small price to pay for a clear conscience? He seems to have thought so.

At the close of the Freeman trial, as this distinguished man labored to persuade men whose prejudice made them tone deaf to his argument he spoke, if you will, a prophetic word: “In due time, gentlemen of the jury, when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbors. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, 'He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterward, Goodwin observes, visitors to Seward's grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone.

As much as I like Gregory Peck and all things Mockingbird, Seward's story is true. He was a man who lived in a time where both north and south, people were ambivalent about the intrinsic worth of any person not of European descent. For his part, long before the Freeman trial he was already persuaded that slavery was an evil that needed to be eradicated from the country. While he wasn't alone in his sentiments clearly many of his contemporaries were not willing to risk so much for the life of a crazed man who had brutally killed a local family. In this he displayed remarkable fortitude and courage and is a reminder to me that there are certain hills worth risking failure for – or worse.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Good grief

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55 quoting Hosea 13:14

When my maternal grandfather, Roman Edward Janecky, died in 1995, my aunt asked if I would speak at his funeral. While his pastor would preside and officiate, I would give the message. I was happy to do it not just because I had loved my grandpa but I was a pastor after all and it's what we do. I had been in the ministry only four short years then and if truth be told I was a little eager to show-off my preaching prowess to the relatives.

Grandpa used to serve me up a scoop of vanilla
in a cake cone
The visitation was going to be held an hour before the service at the same church that Janeckys in Racine, Wisconsin had attended time out of mind. When we arrived, his pastor wanted to go over details of the service so I dutifully followed him into his office while the rest of the family visited and greeted the well-wishers who had come to pay their respects. Meanwhile Grandpa's pastor and I talked away in his study – the same study where my parents had signed their marriage license in 1958 and, no doubt, where other Janeckys had signed theirs in years past as well – about the ministry, about our families and other such pleasantries. He then took me step by step through the order of service explaining not just what would happen but the why behind it. I gathered he was something of a liturgist in that he wanted to revel a bit in the richness of his denomination's tradition with the young nondenominational hick from upstate sitting across from him. Time was passing. Soon they would be closing the casket in the narthex and I had to yet to have my own viewing of Grandpa. As it turned out, I had time enough to get a quick glimpse of him just as they were lowering the lid.

Emmanuel - as it looks today except the church has now closed

I don't recall how I did. Everybody said I did a good job but you know, at a funeral people usually aren't there to critique the sermon especially if you're a grandson trying to honor your granddad. But for me, I was mad. I was mad at myself for allowing my vanity to rob me of an hour I should have spent as a grandson instead of as a professional readying myself to perform my duty. I was mad at myself that I didn't have the gumption to politely tell my grandfather's pastor that as much as he enjoyed talking about his preference for “intincture” in ministering communion, I really needed to be with my mom at that moment. All he really had to do was give me the nod when he needed me to get up and preach. I was angry for weeks after that and I recall making something akin to a vow that from that time onward I would be less eager to officiate at a family member's funeral.

I think I miss Jim more today than
when we first lost him
That being said, I've been called upon frequently over the years to minister on behalf of the family. I spoke at Grandma Janecky's funeral in 1998, Grandma Martin's funeral the following year in 1999, and at both my godparents' funerals, my Aunt Nancy (2001) and Uncle Norm (2007). But in each of those settings, I deliberately approached those gatherings with the mindset of a relative rather than a reverend. It seemed to help me grieve better. When my brother died suddenly in 2001, the most I was willing to do was share a greeting on behalf of our family for those who had come to honor Jim. Otherwise, I let his pastor – Pastor Dick – guide our family through that service of committal. In fact, it was from Pastor Dick that I learned something valuable about grief that I have since come to pass on to others.

Jim would have been thrilled that
the Cubbies are now World Champs

A couple nights before the service, Dick came to my parents' house and visited with them, my sister and I. He had been my parents' and Jim's pastor for over two decades and had known him well. Before he left he gently admonished us that each of us processes grief a different way so that no one has the right to say to another: “Get over it.” You're 'over it' when you are, whenever that might be. In retrospect, I'm really glad he shared that with all of us because the next week, while at my office back in Chetek, I had something of a meltdown. I didn't really cry a lot at Jim's funeral but that afternoon I began blubbering like a baby at the loss of my brother. It was just grief working its way through my soul. By contrast, my parents had far more frequent laments and bouts of grief than I did for that first year after his passing.

My ministry as a pastor these past twenty-five years has confirmed Pastor Dick's wise counsel to us that evening back in 2001. When people experience loss – the loss of a loved one or divorce or bankruptcy or some other kind of trauma – while they are going through it at the same time they are going through it differently. And because that's so, it's important to extend grace to each other when grief comes out as anger or curtness or inconsolable mourning. Back in 1994, one of my best friends lost his arm in a farming accident. It turned his world upside down. But after a few weeks of feeling down about the matter, he put it in his rear-view mirror and went to work on the rest of his life. No sense crying over spilt milk, right? But his wife – his ex-wife – had a far more difficult time in processing what had nearly happened to her. “I came within a millisecond of being a widow at 24 and having to raise two small boys on my own,” is how she put it to me a few years later. It created something of a 'faith-quake' within her and it exasperated the already latent issues that existed between them before the accident. They had both experienced trauma that day on the farm but how they processed that loss was entirely different and unique to the people they were at the time and eventually became a wedge that drove them inseparably apart.

The man loved - and prayed -
for his grandchildren
My father-in-law, Darrell D. Redders (or DDR), died a few weeks ago. This past July, a month before his 80th birthday, they found a tumor the size of a fist on his liver. In mid-August, his doctor explained to my mother-in-law and him that it was inoperable. Not too long afterward, the cancer had metastasized and moved into his lungs. On Friday night, October 21, he climbed into bed after listening on the radio to the high school football team that his son coaches win their first play-off game. A hour or so later, he breathed his last with his wife, his other son and daughter-in-law at his bedside.

I coach our high school's cross country team and one afternoon in late September while at practice my phone rang. It was Dad Redders and so I told my kids I had to take this call. His voice was low and his breathing labored but carefully he asked me if I would do his funeral. Of course, I said I would. Our history together over thirty years of being married to his daughter has been mostly good. We didn't choose each other but love for the same woman had brought us together. And our mutual love for the Lord Jesus and Linda and our four children had kept us together. I would have been just fine for his pastor to preside and sit by my wife's side and hold her hand while we were comforted by Scripture, prayer and the words of others. But since he asked me how could I say no to such an honor?

I think I did okay. I did wear a suit and tie (for an occasion like this Darrell would have expected no less). I did share Jesus and the hope and consolation he brings to those who trust in him for their salvation. And while I presided at the gathering I kept myself unscripted to underscore the fact that I stood before the 200+ congregants who were present not as the officiant but as the son-in-law who is a pastor and was trying to comfort his family.

Sorry, Dad, but your military honors
were real special
Right now the only regret I have is where we had to leave him. The night before Madison had received 2” of rain resulting in the vault trucking getting stuck persuading the cemetery folks to inform us that under the weather conditions no graveside committal service could be held. So we had to leave him in their chapel beneath a large depiction of Catholic monks waving incense above him. It's about as opposite him as can be but hopefully the full military honors he received at the church prior to driving out to the cemetery more than made up for it.

Two weeks later, we are in processing mode. It helps that Linda and I have each other to talk to when talk is needed. I didn't lose my father. Linda did and so understandably tears come at odd and random moments. Like the night before Halloween when Linda, Charlie and I were carving pumpkins at the kitchen table when suddenly Charlie turned to his mom and said very gently, “I'm sorry that Grandpa Redders died.” Me too, Charlie. Me too.

So we mourn now. We don't mourn as if he is gone for good or that we will never see his likes again. Our mutually held Christian faith tells us differently. As DDR would put it:

First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.”

And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master’s word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, The Message

I know Paul is right but for my part what I will miss most of him not being with us any longer is knowing with certainty that my name is lifted up before the Father daily. Death comes to all of us in time. We know it is the requirement of heaven that we die. Every time we stand at a graveside or gather for a funeral we are reminded that the wages of sin is death but – thank God – the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23). So, in that our grief, in time, is turned into something good.