You can see for yourself in the portraits the destruction the illness has caused to my whole body. There is, at least, a small light of hope which could restore me, if not a miracle; but I do not want to tempt the Lord, as I am persuaded that the will of the Lord is that I die in the same way and of the same sickness as my afflicted sheep.” St. Damien of Molokai
Carl Jelsing, poet laureate in North Dakota where there are many poet laureates for some reason, died late December 1992, a few month after my ordination. We buried him right after Christmas on the west side of town on a sunny day when the weatherman had just announced a cold snap. It was 30 degrees below zero, the sun was bright, several feet of snow covered the ground from a Christmas Eve Blizzard, and there was not even a hint of wind at the grave site. As I read the Liturgy of interment, I noticed that a fog was building between my eyes and the Occasional Services book in my hand. It was so cold that my breath was hanging between me and the page like small cloud that I had to disperse with my hand now and again so I could proceed.
Carl had been one of the last real stalwarts of the old Free Lutheran Church. Not the one now in existence, but the Free Lutheran Church that had, reluctantly, entered the old ALC generations back. My congregation had voted against the creation of a new church but then had voted to join. They had done the same at the creation of ELCA.
Carl was an old Haugean from Norway, an immigrant as a child, 80 years prior to his death. He was a Haugean lay preacher, bound and determined to maintain the tradition of lay preaching and presiding over the flock because that is what Norwegian pietist Haugean tradition had taught him. He preached in Norwegian at the old Tunbridge Church, which never joined ALC, a quaint open country church, closed years prior but lovingly maintained by one or two families in true Free Lutheran spirit who opened it now and again so Norwegian services could be held.
Carl’s funeral was, in a way, a celebration of his Norwegian-ness as much as it was of his life. One of the readings was done in Norwegian and, when you died, apparently, someone has to sing: “Den store hvide flok vi se” (Norwegian for: “The Great White Flock we see” LBW “Who is this host arrayed in white” ELW: “Behold the host arrayed in white.”) When music was discussed it was raised immediately and everyone, except for me, knew that this needed to be in the service somewhere prominent. Carl had been the one who had sung it at many Norwegian funerals in the past. Someone from a neighboring church had already been contacted. “Den store hvide flok vi se” was going to be sung. There was no question about it.
The soloist met with the organist to practice. In the discussion she asked him: “How many verses are you singing?” At that moment, the man grew stern and almost angry: “There is only one verse!” I have seen various versions of the song in Danish (the author was a Dane) and Norwegian and am not sure what the fuss was, but somehow, at this occasion, something within came to the surface. If truly there is only one verse that ought to be sung, the translator of the hymn among Lutherans, Gracia Grindal, should have well known that. Her father was one of my predecessors, was Norwegian, and certainly he, she, and Carl must have known one another since Harold Grindal had had charge of Tunbridge church.
Yes, I have researched this question: How many verses are there to this thing? I can’t tell but in some places a three verse poem appears under the author name in our hymnal, Brorson, but the words of that poem make up only the words of the first verse in the hymnal.
In the end, I am fairly certain that the “one verse only” rule was something that Carl and those close to him in the local Norwegian Free Lutheran Church were advocating, the reason for this is now safely shrouded in the vail and fog of time gone past.
We do not write about death enough. Christians, it is said, were once the people who cared for the dying, gently and lovingly. When the Blessed Mother Teresa took up her mission to the dying in Calcutta she was continuing a long history of a mission of Grace. We, the Christians, were the ones not afraid of death. St. Francis hugged the leper with that in mind. He was not afraid of dying even dying of leprosy. Fr. Damien, now also St. Damien, went to Hawaii’s leper colony to minister there and stayed for years. Leprosy is not easy to transmit, but that is recent knowledge. Damien eventually was diagnosed with it and lived out his life on Molokai, allowing himself to be photographed often to document the progress of the disease. In doing so he also documented the grace that a Christian at his best displays when faced with pestilence: Peaceful Grace and fearlessness in dying and death. Damien, I seem to recall long after having read his story, entered the leper colony again after being diagnosed and gently said to his flock: “Now I am truly one of you.”
Those could be words spoken by Christ. “I die in the same way and of the same sickness as my afflicted sheep.” “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) Incarnation is the work of Immense Hope, immeasurable Love, and graceful fearlessness, whether it is found in Christ or in the saints.
Us regular saints, like Carl Jelsing, are called to the same incarnation in our lives. We all leave behind a witness and that witness is often a story obscured by a light cloud formed from the breath of the Holy Spirit maybe condensing in the cold of a North Dakota afternoon, that does not allow us to read it clearly. Our motives and reasons, blessed or malignant, for doing or adamantly not doing something, like singing any verses of “Den store hvide flok vi se” past the first, or closing a congregation rather than joining it to a new Church but at the same time somehow leaving it there frozen in time, will be lost in the shrouds of history. The stories of life in church in little places unknown to most will go untold after a generation or so. The host in heaven arrayed in white will know the stories but they are beyond telling them having reserved their breath to join the songs of the angels and heavenly hosts.
The day we celebrate, All Saints, was meant for the saints of whom stories are told in abundance. They are the ones whose first names are all the same for some reason: “Saint.” and whose last name is also the same: “Christian.” We share the latter with them. We recognize them — well, to be honest, we have to leave it to others to do the recognizing because we lack the mechanisms for canonization — because they lived the basic, cardinal virtues out loud and they lived them big: Faith, Hope, and Love. They lived immense Hope, immeasurable Love, and graceful fearlessness (Faith).
We celebrate a sort of “All Souls” as Lutherans because we know that all lives show a glimpse of God in them and live, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, the cardinal virtues. Sometimes their stories recall themselves to us for no reason. I have no idea why I recalled Carl as I sat down to write. But the recollection serves a purpose: It connects us to the shoulders we stand on. To the past that is not so past because it too will need to be redeemed, not by us but by the Father in Heaven. But it is out of that past that we receive our story and if it is to end with the host arrayed in white, then that story will be redeemed by God as well.
If we try to redeem it ourselves, we will end up speaking foreign tongues no one can understand any longer in empty churches on the prairie where no one has reason to go, and we will sing no more than a third of the song as the bitter cold settles around the walls outside, soon to enter when the heat is turned off.
It is up to us. We either recover this odd conviction of Christians that we fear not death or we freeze.