Migrants With a Call to Transformation

Mary Wiese Gundelach
Remember the Future Society
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, April 22, 2010

I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12: 1–2).

When Paul tells us to be transformed and renewed he is carrying out his long-cherished plan to visit the church at Rome. He lays open the continuities and the differences between the Gospel and Judaism, out of which he had come, and Paul, being profoundly Jewish and Christian, could not deal with the issues confronting him without involving his own religious identity. There is no sharp separation possible between Paul’s theology and his ethics. He uses it to inform, to instruct and to guide. In his transformation he had become a mix, and as he traveled about, it helps me to think of him as a “migrant.” (I realize this carries particular implications these days, but as I thought about this word, “migrant,” I felt the implications would be good for my thought, and I hope the same is true for yours.)

How can we live a transformed life? How do we make the decisions that show God’s way into our lives? And for today’s focus, how do we take action to remember the future for this seminary?

For a start, I like what appears to be an increased interest in telling and hearing one another’s stories. When we look at other times and other places, we most likely will find some version of our own life and by listening and experiencing with others, we are given the opportunity to look into our own lives with increased perception and understanding. And as we listen, we must embrace the complexity of our cultural tradition, for it is how we unfold the collective story of God’s people. This cannot happen unless we allow questions to come our way and we engage in struggle to make sure they are the best possible questions, perhaps, questions that will not go away. There may be no easy answers and if the answers arrive, they may be painful. This speaks to the process of transformation, and I believe this renewal comes with a long view, and it comes through the wrestle with God over where and how we fit into that view.

Thus, I’ll share a bit of my story, realizing some may be familiar territory for many of you.

I was born countless miles from nowhere, in South Dakota, in the depths of winter, during a severe blizzard, which prevented the doctor’s arrival at our house. My father delivered me. I’ve come to believe it was my first call as we define our lives in Lutheranism.

I am a child of the prairie and I carry with me images and thoughts of my father plowing the black soil over parts of the endless vistas of tall grasses, sea gulls arching against the azure blue sky. My brothers taught me how to crawl through the stands of barbed wire fence to explore the pastures, where we found volcanic rocks, mysterious fire rings, and arrow heads. We learned the habits of gophers and how to trap them. We tried to be fair with one another over the count, because the county offered two cents for every gopher tail we furnished as evidence of our catch. Pennies had purchasing power. I am a child of the Great Depression.

I carry with me colors of sunsets wider than the horizon could hold, with sound effects of the meadow lark teaching me how to sing. However, in the haze of nostalgia, honesty forces me to tell of our search for shade from that same hot sun, because it baked the plowed black soil into crusty brick, where no sprout could penetrate, and no leaf had a chance. I am a child of the drought.

I am a child of prairie farmers who modeled lasting patience and hope, for they turned the soil again and again and, when the gift of rain and sun and soil responded, hail storms destroyed those promising green shoots, and swarms of buzzing grasshoppers clouded the skies devouring all, including the few trees and the paint from the side of our little house. The fierce prairie winds whirled the black earth into dust banks that rivaled the winter snow banks, and the tumble weed thistles rolled ahead of the driving wind. I am, indeed, a migrant from the Dust Bowl.

Water from the wells or cistern sustained us and the farm animals. Sometimes there were artesian wells that ran non-stop. I think I gained some practical sensitivity about water on this planet from those rainless years. We measured how much came out of the bucket by the kitchen sink, for we had responsibility to carry more when it was empty. And the cistern or well could run dry, so we learned that water is very precious. I am a migrant from a land with only dry lake beds.

We looked to one another in a tiny church, in a small town two miles away from our dusty home. Much later in life, I received a letter from the pastor’s wife, he having died earlier. The letter tells of my father (the faithful one, who went at 4:30 on cold Sunday mornings to build the fire in the furnace, helped rebuild the parsonage, reroofed the hail-damaged steeple, shoveled coal into the basement bin, joined others looking to see that all was in good repair, etc., etc.) approaching our pastor after many years of plagues, asking, “Where is God? What more can I do? I am now unable to feed my family, I cannot see a way to move them elsewhere, and as Christmas approaches, it appears there is no way for any gift under a Christmas tree, and my fourth child will never have a doll.” Pastor reached into his pocket and handed him two dollars, saying “Here, please go find a doll for your daughter. It will lift all our hearts.” I share this episode simply to say we had the gift of a pastor among us.

After more than a decade, the rains returned, and the planted seeds grew into miraculous crops. In my high school years, I was able to attend a Lutheran Bible Camp, where I was counseled by several pastors to consider study to become a Lutheran teacher in an LCMS school. There were no scholarships and no high school counseling for such. And, in fact, I knew of no Lutheran school in South Dakota. I was encouraged to apply for assistance from the LCMS District Financial Aid office to offset some of my costs. In addition, I was promised a campus job. I borrowed the remainder of my expenses from my parents, as I was the first of my family to attend college, not unusual for that time and that place. I became a student at Concordia in Nebraska and ultimately was engaged to serve as a Lutheran teacher, continuing in efforts of education and art to this present day.

I wonder if Lutherans of the 1950s could have fully realized how the vast geographic representation of students on that little campus, in itself, influenced our education and our lives. We were learning from one another regional habits from North Dakota, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, to Arizona, Texas, New York and significant states in between. None of us there had seen a television set, had flown on an airplane, the telephone was used only in emergencies, and the one small parking lot was for a cars belonging to faculty and a couple of popular students. We were all migrants, some from the next rural town, some from a significant city at a distance, gathered in this intimate campus setting, most all of us preparing for the teaching ministry in a rapidly growing education system of LCMS churches at that time.

My two older sisters, having moved to California, were my role models in the merits of making a living in this state. And although there were diverse opinions, I remember great student enthusiasm over the call, “Go West, Concordia Grad, Go West.” The choir tours had put us in touch with the land of excellent new schools, some run by transplanted church goers, a native Californian nowhere in sight, better salaries, the golden tan from beaches everywhere, stucco buildings with poinsettias that grew tall as trees, Christmas lights in palm trees, oranges that grew on trees, freeways with shiny, necessary automobiles. Later, Sunset magazine convinced us that casseroles and jello were no longer in style, but instead taught us how to make tacos, stir fry, pita bread, and couscous. How quickly we have moved on.

After first teaching in Indiana, I was one of multitudes who crossed the Rocky Mountains, a migrant in a developing church culture that later, I might add, lived in dismay as we prayed for the transformation of limiting forms coming from the Mississippi Belt that kept us from essentials in mission. The dust storms and my roots loomed behind me.

So after years in San Diego; Austin, Texas; and again in Oakland, California, I’ve now lived in my present home in the Peninsula longer than I have lived anywhere in my entire life. I value the wonders of the area and I am grateful for the endless cultural and educational opportunities to which I am privileged to be near. It was while serving in Oakland that I first became acquainted with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. It has become increasingly evident that this seminary, with its talented and faithful faculty and administration, is taking on the challenge of quality, and finding delight in nurturing those called to a transformed understanding of ministry in our needy and fragmented culture.

When we consider that people, land, and community are connected, in the healthiest of cultures the connections are complex. Experience and travel have changed my perceptions about many things. I suppose it can be called growth and maturation, but youthful vision, intentionality, and commitment is the other half of the view. Here lies God’s way to transformation.

In later years, my now sainted husband and I stood on the Masai Mara in the center of the African continent, the tall grasses waved in the winds, where 180 degrees of sky lasted over our heads. The barefooted warriors, not cowboys, stood guard over their cattle, surrounded by their fences, piled and woven with the brambling thistles I had known so very well. Cows mean money, nourishment and ritual there, and I knew some of what it meant, for I remembered I am a migrant from the prairie.

In the Republic of Georgia the plump wheat stalks in fields wider than the eye could see, waved in the wind and I crushed the grains and chewed the tasty wheat kernel and could easily remember the nourishing, delicious bread my mother baked—eight loaves every Saturday morning. But, in Srinigar I tasted the vegetables from gardens floating on Lake Dal, harvested from the water, not the earth. And it was there that my husband and I huddled with a German engineer on a cedar houseboat waiting for messages of good news on the short wave radio for a break in the fierce battle in town between the local Muslims and Hindus. And we prayed, and I remembered I am a migrant from the Great Depression.

As we sailed in a small boat through the Yangtse River gorges, I saw tree tops fending for their life, looking like bushes as the water rose to flood level. The waters were so high and so very violent, entire farms were washed away carrying produce and people with us in the current. As a child, I had seen little water in a riverbed. I thought of our flooded journey in China as I heard again of this spring’s devastation north of my Dakota birthplace and said to myself, “I am a migrant from a land of dry river beds.”

We stood watching the prayer flags wave in the wind of Tibet at 11,000 feet altitude and saw turquoise and amber beads, weavings of vibrant colors, people of striking features with high cheek bones, reminding me of people and culture we had visited in the heights of the Andes. These two civilizations, thousands of miles apart and altitudes high had never known of one another, yet are creating the same fabric and bead designs out of materials found in their ancient earth and they till the soil and rotate their crops, as my father did, but there on the mountainous steppe living wisely for the sustenance of the community. I was reminded I am a European child, and a migrant from the Dust Bowl.

In City of God, City of Satan, Robert Linthicum reports that during the turn of this century for the first time in history, the world is in an inevitable and irreversible trend. We now know it is more urban than rural. Systems of sanitation and refuse, the power and water, the capacity to house and feed and employ is overwhelmed. No previous generation has had to face human problems of this magnitude, and we know the church has unprecedented potential for ministry through education and services. Linthicum boldly writes, “The world is coming to the city and we can be there to greet it in Christ’s name.”

Seminarians are laying claim to the divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there. They will have a passion for sharing, they will do everything possible to connect people—not disconnect them—and when they choose, in the manner of God’s will, the choice will always be for those who hurt, who are hungry, who are ill, disenfranchised, or in prison. This is where Jesus promises He will be.

And for us to be with them in this transformation, God’s call is for us to find ways to act. Here are some starters for us in Remembering the Future:

…With urgency & generosity, let us assist with tuition funding for our future pastors with immediate funds and planned giving of every sort …and continue to help support them in their service with assurance of respectable salaries;

…With time & intention, let us nurture those around us who have potential talent for ministry, and let us find ways to raise the consciousness level of members in our home parish encouraging them to appreciate God’s gifts through this seminary with invitation, good words, and joyful appreciation;

…with a grateful heart, let us work to increase the annual amount for a line item in our church budgets designated for PLTS;

And for those of us who migrate from this place, or into this place, we always have the reminder that we carry the spiritual power God promised us in our baptism. If we can remember our baptism, it helps us so as not to confuse our power with our money. Let us, together, and as individuals, consider God’s call to generosity, for the sake of the Gospel. God promises to turn our gifts into acts that are transformed into the vast and long view of the Resurrection. We are all migrants into the land of Easter people.

Mary Wiese Gundelach
April 22, 2010

References: City of God, City of Satan, Robert C. Linthicum, 1991, Zondervan Publishing House

Remember the Future May 2010