I have been given many opportunities to belong.
I have been given many signs that I belong.
When my father-in-law, Reverend E. Earl Anderson, died earlier this month, I immediately remembered one of those signs.
I’ll never forget the overwhelming feeling of belonging I had when, upon announcing our engagement in 1997 after dating for two years, Tim received one of the many (MANY) family letters his father sent to his kids over the years, and the salutation read: “Kris & Dan, Tim & Karen, Kirk & Dawn.”
Prior to that, the salutation read: “Kris & Dan, Tim, Kirk & Dawn.”
I haven’t always understood my part – my responsibility – in belonging. There were many times when I believed and acted like I didn’t belong….because I didn’t know how.
When I first met Tim and found out his father was a Lutheran minister, I was a little intimidated and fearful. At that point I considered myself an atheist. I laughingly (and defensively) referred to myself as a heathen.
Now, Tim isn’t a church-goer, either, and over the years he has expressed guilt over this. He’s an engineer with a scientific bent, although he certainly embraces the idea that science and spirituality are just different sides of the same coin.
But here’s the thing: while they are certainly different, Tim and his Dad had a lot in common, including healthy skepticism, practicality, the ability to question and challenge, and mutual, deep respect and admiration.
In the days after his death, as we, his family, received visitors at the funeral home and at his service, I got to see and know Earl through the eyes of others (MANY others).
The things I knew about him – that he was an encourager, a joker, a gentleman, a gentle man, a storyteller, and someone who knew how to encourage belonging – were related over and over again.
There was one thing none of us knew. Back in 1969 he almost left the ministry…his faith had been shaken. During that time he wrote a personal Psalm* that was kept private from his family until the day before he died.
The sermon at his funeral service was given by Pastor Steve Bond (of Hope Lutheran Church in Homer City, PA) whom Earl had known and mentored for nearly 10 years.
Pastor Bond captured the essence of Earl perfectly. He started by saying that they’d only ever had one conversation: “…we had one long, winding, paused-and-started-and-paused-and-started-again, conversation—one that has taken now the better part of a decade to unfold.”
You could feel everyone in the congregation nodding in recognition.
“When I say I only ever had one conversation with Earl, I mean to say that, in the years we all knew him … and in all the places where conversation happened, from the kitchen table at Georgetown, or parsonage dinner tables, to the council meeting rooms and social halls of congregations near and far, and even across the wheeled tray table at St. Andrew’s [the nursing home where he died], that blessed man invited us into a conversation that was already in progress, a conversation that you had picked up with sometime before, and which you would pick up again the next time…and that fist-pumping gesture he made when he was happy for you, or proud of you, or when you had just said something that made him smile his closed-eye satisfied smile, and he just wanted to savor the words like he was rolling around a sip of wine in his mouth.”
That was exactly my experience too.
Later, Pastor Bond went on to say (in regards to that time in 1969):
“Here is a man who is … so clearly at ease with his Creator that he can be honest about the heartbreak as well as the happy endings. Here is a man who is still teaching us that prayer is not a rote recitation of rhymed couplets to check off your list of proper rituals, but the unending, ever-deepening conversation when a person pours out their soul to the God who loves us enough to let us be honest.
Earl showed us living and vibrant faith that looked like an ongoing and unending living conversation with God.
That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? …his presence was not intimidating—because he was real. And he could be real before God. He showed us what it looked like to be real before God and everybody else, and to let all pretense and pomp and pageantry be set aside.”
Because of all this, I see now how I fit in…that I belong because he was showing me by example.
I was able to be exactly who I am in his presence…to be loved and accepted unconditionally because he was showing me by example.
He never tried to preach to me or convert me. And he certainly never judged me, which is what, 20 years ago when I found out that my then boyfriend’s father was a minister, I had feared most.
A couple of years ago when I was in the midst of a painful issue with which he was familiar, I told him what I had hoped to do, and the outcome I expected.
He gave me a real response, not the Sunday School answer I’d expected.
With a twinkle in his eye, he said quietly, “Good luck with that.”
I laughed out loud. He wasn’t being flip, he was being honest because he understood me and the subtleties involved.
I have, slowly, come – not only to believe in God – but to understand God. Not in a traditional, religious sense, but in my own way.
Just like I sense Earl did.
Godspeed Earl. I am grateful to you for many things: for the way you raised your son (who is the perfect husband for me), for your gentle humor, for your consistency and ability to maintain relationships, and most of all for your example.
I praise You, O Lord, very much to my surprise.
For many were the weights to hold me down, the walls to crowd me in on every side.
Certain, certain was the crisis that would overwhelm me.
Yet, dry-mouthed with fear, I felt the tendrils of my heart reach out
To touch fresh springs of grace.
Yet, in all that darkness, your presence, like a faint glimmer of the will-o’-the-wisp
Then broke, broke, broke, like dawn, into view.
Life’s joys returned. Its dreads drew back to their proper place.
Time again to work, and leap, and laugh again, and I praise You.
But very much to my surprise.
~ E. Earl Anderson ~