Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, January 8, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

Dennis Heller telephoned Saturday night after the IU basketball team’s improbable defeat of the U of MN. He has little interest in basketball in general or IU in particular, but he knows that my mood waxes and wanes with IU basketball. He just wanted to call to congratulate me on the win, knowing that the instructions I shouted at the TV during the game must have been the turning point.

It may also have been because he was at a baby shower and wanted to take a break. His wife, Mary Jo, and Jim Keifer’s wife, Jenny, were throwing a baby shower for a mutual friend. That was hard to do, since the Hellers live in Seattle and the Keifers in San Francisco. The Hellers and Keifers are former students, who do us the honor of caring about us and what is important to us.

We first met Denny when he was a sophomore at Illinois State U. I had just become the Methodist campus minister there, and he was part of a large and excellent group of sophomores that I inherited. There was a scattering of seniors and juniors, but it was the sophomore class that carried The Wesley Foundation that year, and the years following, too.

We had no freshmen yet that first fall, of course, and we had to prepare for them fast. Most of the sophomores didn’t even come back in time for freshman orientation, so we had only a small cadre of returning kids who came back early. They had to prepare our orientation pitch to the frosh. Mary Albers was in that group.

She had started at Illinois Wesleyan U, a mile up Franklin Street from ILSU, because she wanted to be a minister. It had been ten years since Methodists had agreed that it might be possible for God to call a woman to be a preacher, too, just like men, but folks at that Methodist college were so surprised and unsupportive of Mary’s plans and hopes that she was totally discouraged. She decided she might as well pay less to go to college and wind up as a teacher, the way she was told she should, so she transferred to ISU. She was beautiful and smart and talented.

One of her talents was musical. She played guitar and sang. So as our freshman orientation session started, she was on one side of the chancel and Denny was on the other, getting ready to sing to each other.

This was in a different era. Freshmen students were told that they should go to the evening orientation period of their religious denomination, so they did. The large sanctuary of First Methodist Church was full of new students, eager—or at least willing—to see what their campus ministry group was all about.

We had “adjusted” the Smothers Brothers song about cowboys [1] to use at the orientation. Mary sang, a capella, to Denny: “I see by your lapel cross that you are a Christian.” They began to walk toward each other. “I see by your lapel cross that you are a Christian, too,” he sang back to her. “We see by our lapel crosses we are both Christians.” At that point they met in the middle of the chancel, turned to the assembled freshmen and assured them, in two-part harmony, “If you get a lapel cross, you can be a Christian, too.”

We spent the next hour explaining to those poor kids why that song was not true, and how they would have to shape up and actually act like Christians instead of just looking like them, if they wanted to make a difference in the world, if they wanted to cause “thy kingdom come” instead of just praying it.

Mary never got to be a preacher. She went into the Peace Corps after college and died of cancer there, in the Philippines, when she was twenty-five. But she made a difference.

So did Denny and Mary Jo and Jacquie and John and Ron and Roland and the three Lindas and Craig and the other Marys and the Jans and Joyce and Wes and Carolyn and Bonnie and Chuck and Donna and Bill and Eleanor and both Jims and Phil and Sydney and Cherry and Dick and Steve and Arlette and Larry and Colleen and Bruce and Kathy and Jeanette and Vicki and Colleen and Mary Ann and Julie and Francine and Cindy and Cyndi and Mike and Danny and Carol and Wendy and Glenda [Inky] and Ann and Stan and Danette and Bob and Marian and Penny and Carla and Dave and Paul and Claudia and all the others.

They are old retired people now. Some of them no longer go to church, but you will still not need a lapel cross to know that they are Christians. 


1] “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy. I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too…”

Reader Alert: If you have read this column in the last 3 months, all that follows is old news:

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

I stopped writing this column for a while, for several reasons. It wasn’t until I had quit, though, that I knew this reason: I did not want to be responsible for wasting your time. If I write for others, I have to think about whether it’s worthwhile for you to read. If I write only for myself, it’s caveat emptor. If you choose to read something I have written, but I have not advertised it, not asked you to read it, and it’s poorly constructed navel-gazing drivel, well, it’s your own fault. Still, I apologize if you have to ask yourself, “Why did I waste time reading this?”

The full story of how God tricked me into becoming a professional Xn is in my book, The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

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