Monday, April 20, 2015

Pastor to the People: Edwin L. Ehlers (1929 - 2015)

Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received . . . but only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage. – St. Francis of Assisi
Time passes quickly and life turns in unexpected directions. After Andrea and I returned from a wonderful 12-day trip to Israel last week, I naturally called my parents to tell them about it. My dad was particularly interested in where we went and what we saw, comparing our experience to his Israel trip in the 1980’s. We talked for nearly thirty minutes, and I could sense the joy and gratitude in my dad’s voice as we spoke of the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, the peaceful splendor of the Sea of Galilee, the rugged beauty of the Golan Heights, and the magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea from Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. My dad was fascinated with Israel, its geography and rich history, its many archaeological sites, and its significance to Christians and Jews alike. He was delighted that we had such a nice experience and spent quality time with my daughter Hannah. At the end of our conversation, my dad said, “We love you.”  

As it turned out, these were my father’s final words to me. The next day, he collapsed while retrieving the mail, struck by a brain aneurysm. He never regained consciousness and died five days later. He was 85 years old.

Over 300 people came to my dad’s funeral and memorial services – one in North Carolina, where my dad and mom have spent the past 20 years of their life, and one in New Jersey, where it all began. The number of people who had been touched by my father’s kindness and sense of service, his compassion for people and exceptional listening skills, was heartfelt and inspiring. That my dad was truly beloved by so many people from all walks of life was evident in the countless stories I heard throughout the week – stories about how my dad changed people’s lives, or did little things to show his support for people in times of need. At St. James Lutheran Church in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where my dad served as pastor for ten years after graduating seminary, several people told me about how Dad steered them straight during their troubled teen years and guided them through other difficult times in their lives. They remembered with fondness his role in their confirmations, or marriages, or the baptisms of their children.

A Lutheran minister who rose to the top of his profession when he was elected Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, he was respected and admired not only for his leadership and administrative skills, but also because he genuinely liked people, was interested in the stories and lives of others, and was a true pastor in the best sense of that word. As Bishop, he was a pastor’s pastor, constantly advising and guiding other pastors as they confronted the many challenges of parish ministry and the social and political upheavals of the early 1970’s – racial tensions, drugs and poverty, rising divorce rates, and the declining influence of religion and faith in American life.

Growing up, I took it for granted that my dad counseled and consoled others – all the time it seemed then. He visited people in the hospital, prayed with them, advised them, assisted with their concerns, comforted them in times of crises. He was a psychologist, theologian, teacher, youth director, business manager, public speaker, inspirational leader, and he did it all without ever losing his sense of humanity or humility. He was a pastor, a friend, a father, a husband, and a kind and decent human being. As far as pastors go, for over sixty years he was one of the best there ever was.

I have often noted that some people are visionaries and leaders – they give powerful speeches or sermons and ably lead and inspire through their charisma and eloquence. Others are organized managers and able administrators. It is true in many professions, from law and politics to education and religion. In the case of an ordained Lutheran minister, there are many good pastors and many good preachers, but few who can do both well. My father was the rare exception. A good public speaker with a strong, clear voice, he preached with clarity and a principled relevance that related the Gospel to the world at large. He made religion and faith relevant to people’s everyday lives.

But he saw his primary role as that of a servant, as someone who was there for those in need. He guided, prodded, advised, and listened -- always listened -- and embraced everyone he met with God’s grace and unconditional love. He balanced compassion and mercy with personal responsibility and never lost sight of the broader world and of society’s obligation to improve the lot of the poor and weak. His vision of social and economic justice was deeply rooted in his Christian faith and he had little tolerance for “Christians” who lacked compassion for others.

My dad was special in part because he was genuinely interested in people. He loved conversation, especially with young people. Whenever I introduced my father to one of my friends or, in later years, one of their children, he would spend the next several minutes asking them about themselves. What are you studying? What are you interested in? How is that going? He made people feel welcome and important.

“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good,” wrote Abigail Van Buren. My dad was unimpressed with big shots and fancy titles. He related well to the common man; he understood their struggles, listened to their needs, and offered whatever solace and help he could. He did not have sophisticated tastes in food, art, music, or literature. In later years, he was somewhat set in his ways and had little interest in new experiences for himself. But he took great pleasure in the new experiences of his children and grandchildren, and he allowed all of us to spread our wings and fly.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” wrote Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie. I have lost a father but I retain many good memories, decades of counsel and advice, words of encouragement and understanding. He was my biggest fan in life. When I began writing this blog, and after I published collections of my essays in book form, he contacted just about everyone he knew and encouraged them to read and pay attention to what I wrote. At his funeral in North Carolina last week, I was surprised by how many people approached me, asked if I was "the author," and said they had read my books, often because my dad had sent them a copy. He was always printing copies of my essays, which he hand-delivered to whomever he thought would benefit from my “wisdom.” “I want you to read this” was his common refrain.

He encouraged me to continue writing and reading. Whenever we spoke, he asked what I was working on, what books I was reading. A while back he sent me a handwritten note that attached an announcement from The Christian Century, the liberal mainline Protestant journal of opinion, which invited essays on the topic of mentors. “I think that you could do an excellent job in writing about John Steinbruck as one of your mentors,” he wrote. “You have already written about him and perhaps some of your experiences with John could fit into this essay. It also might be an opportunity to ‘get in’ with The Century for other possible articles. Hope you will give it a shot. Love, Dad.” That was just like him. Every so often, I received similar notes of interest or encouragement, articles he thought I would find insightful, or reflections that might provide a topic for a future essay.

Every Christmas, my dad composed a letter that he sent to friends and family. He would start with a short statement – a sermon really, for he was a pastor after all – about the meaning of the Advent and Christmas seasons, his concerns for the world’s inevitable troubles, and his wish for peace and a more just world. But he almost always included a wish for the reader, as he did in his 2012 Christmas letter: “Please know that our prayer for each of you is that God’s light and love will continue to sustain and strengthen you [now] and throughout the years ahead.” It was his genuine wish for everyone, that we would all be sustained and strengthened by the light and love of God. For my dad, this was the essence of his faith and his concern for humankind. All else was commentary.

At the funeral in North Carolina last week, my oldest daughter Jennifer told those present that my dad, her grandfather, “was an intrinsic part of the way I see the world . . . an extremely positive presence in my life that was always there.” It would have warmed his heart to hear this, because he was so proud of Jen and her sister, Hannah. At the service in New Jersey, Jen read a beautiful note written by Hannah from Israel that perhaps sums up best what made my Dad so special:
Grandpa, I don’t know people any more loving and righteous and humble and kind than you and grandma. You both have always been my prime example of love in all its forms— in your undying love for each other, for family, for God, and for all of God’s children. You taught me love, beautiful love, complex and painful, whole and holy.   
And I know that what I am feeling now, so terribly far away, is the price of that love—the love that shapes, that cushions, that steadies me as I face the injustices of the world; the love that gives me the courage not to turn away. I know that the loss we all feel is a result of this love, but this knowledge makes it no less painful, no less difficult, and no less real. 
I hope with all of my heart that you spend happy hour drinking gin and eating pretzels, deep in conversation with Jesus in Heaven. I hope your laugh continues echoing somewhere other than our minds, deep and bellowing and genuinely joyous. But either way your love and wisdom and justice-pursuing lives on in us. With every breath we take, when we hug each other, when we cry at parting, when we are kind to each other and to strangers and provide a hand to those in need, when we look at the world and feel gratitude flood our veins, your spirit stirs within us. You have left an irremovable mark on the Earth and on countless lives—a mark shaped by goodness and God. 
I don't want to leave the impression that my father was a saint -- he would not have stood for it. He had too good a sense of humor for sainthood. And he was far from perfect. He enjoyed his martinis and beer, swore like a sailor when he was stuck in traffic or accidentally bumped his head, and for many years ignored his doctor's (and my mom's) repeated instructions to give up salt and pretzels. He was an imperfect man. No one knew that better than Dad. He was human in every sense of that word. But because he so recognized that fact, and never tried to be someone he was not, he understood people better than they understood themselves. And that was his ultimate gift to us all. 

I will miss my Dad. We all will miss him. The world will miss him. But memories of him will remain with us for the rest of our lives as his spirit, his humor, his guidance and counsel, lives on in each of us.