At a certain age, obituaries take on new interest. They're my first stop when I open the newspaper and The Lutheran. And it's a rare issue of the latter that doesn't bear the name of an old friend, acquaintance or former colleague. Recently the name that stopped me and stirred up memories was Herluf Jensen. The story goes like this:
More than 50 years ago I was an English instructor at a small college in North Carolina. I enjoyed the work but realized that to advance I would have to go on for a doctorate. Yet I doubted my ability and desire to do this. Since it was toward the end of the school year, I would soon have to make that crucial decision.
One spring weekend, the Student Christian Movement sponsored a conference at my school. The keynote speaker was a young World War II veteran from New York with whom I shared, at least, a Scandinavian name. I went to hear him and afterward bumped into him at a local pub. Over beers we chatted, discovering we were both Midwesterners and Lutherans. Then I explained my quandary — no, my vocational anxiety. I had a wife, an infant and was facing a return to graduate school that didn't seem quite right.
My new friend said he had exactly the right place for me: the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (then in Maywood). It would be a fine opportunity to reflect on my future with a talented faculty and other seekers. I could, he said, get my bearings and the cost would be minimal. My wife and I would even receive help to find employment.
I told him that I hadn't considered ministry. He said it didn't matter. Take it one year at a time, he advised, and let the sorting out happen. He admitted he hadn't gone to seminary himself, but he'd considered it for the same reasons that he was suggesting it to me.
I listened carefully, surprised by the enthusiasm I felt. The next morning, I announced to my amazingly supportive wife that I was going to seminary. We packed our 1951 Pontiac to the gills with everything we owned, with room for the baby and dog (both of whom complained noisily during an un-airconditioned, pre-freeway slog through the sweltering South). Once there we moved into a two-room apartment without a kitchen.
It was a grand four years. At the end, I felt good about where I was headed: parish ministry. I got a call to Danebod in Tyler, Minn., a congregation of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, a Danish body that merged into the Lutheran Church in America. A Norwegian, I felt somewhat an outsider, but they graciously took me in.
The same day I walked into the parsonage would be our home, where a reception was in progress to mark Danebod's 75th anniversary. There, in the middle of the room, wasHerluf Jensen, the man who had put me on the course that brought me to my new vocation.
I told him that if it had not been for him, I didn't know where I might be — but certainly not in this wonderful place. With a puzzled look he said something like: "I don't remember our conversation, but welcome to Danebod. My father was a pastor here and I grew up in this house."
I'm still not entirely sure what this oft-told story means: why a man in a casual, yet earnest, conversation should have such a profound effect on another person. Well, it happens all the time: we bear witness, and our witness bears fruit in its own season. Isn't there something biblical in this: one plants the seed, another waters and still another harvests? At any rate, I give thanks to Herluf, who set me on a good path. He is missed; his work goes on.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers