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November 23, 2016

Reflections on a Listening with Grace Experience

The following story was written by Grace member Erik Odden. In writing that is poignant, funny and moving, Erik shares recent events in his life and how they intersect with our Listening with Grace inreach.  Thank you, Eric for putting pen to paper and sharing this with the Grace community. 

“There’s a reason I work in the Electrical Industry and am not a Lutheran Pastor like my Father”, I quipped to the overflowing crowd in a small building in Edina on a beautiful October afternoon this autumn. 

It was nearly 2 months after my former coworker died in an auto accident.  He and his wife were driving back to the Twin Cities after visiting their son, on assignment at an Air Force Base in Kansas.  When suddenly, traffic on I-35 slowed to a halt due to some sort of seasonal road construction.  The driver of the car behind my co-worker and his wife rear-ended them at highway speed, killing my co-worker instantly and severely injuring his wife.  It was later reported that the driver “looked down for an instant” and his driving record published online showed many moving violations and even license revocation.
I didn’t hear the news until about a week and a half after the accident.  Sadly, I hadn’t stayed close with my co-worker after he retired in the Summer of 2014.  And it was understandably very difficult for my co-worker’s family to reach his former work colleagues as his phone was destroyed in the accident and his wife was incapacitated with her injuries.

The day my ex co-worker died was two days after my Step-Father finally succumbed to the Pancreatic Cancer, which over the span 6-months, progressively pushed his body beyond the threshold of life.  So while people were fighting to unsuccessfully save my ex co-worker’s life, I was back in Wisconsin helping my Mother with arrangements of my Step Father’s funeral and for her to move to our brand new house in New Brighton.

My step-father was a man of profound faith.  He grew up poor in rural Iowa, pushed himself academically and ultimately became a Physics professor.  After moving into the private sector, he was financially successful while still living a modest life.  He was the type of guy who was NEVER sick.  I can’t remember him ever going to the hospital and his most severe physical issues that I can recall were a bad back and a bum ankle, which seemed to go away once he realized that my brother and I could in fact beat him at any possible physical activity, and migraine headaches which seemed to go away right about the time that he stopped trying to teach college students about the world of Physics.  He was arguably the youngest looking, and acting, 65-year old man I’d ever known.  To say that his diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer in February of this past year was a profound shock would be a vast understatement.  For the first few months after diagnosis, it still seemed like this was all a big mistake.  He continued to be sharp mentally and physically active.  The only thing that made us believe that he really was sick was the pain that he endured.  He could have upped his morphine intake to alleviate the pain, but he wanted to go out on his own terms and to him that meant spending as much time as possible visiting with family and friends in the last few precious months of his life.  As the end grew near, he became jaundiced and started to rapidly lose weight.  He became confused, and began having repeating hallucinations about his favorite cats or becoming anxious that he forgot to prepare his acceptance speech for an award bestowed upon him by the fine folks at Harvard University.  One thing that never waivered, and in fact grew stronger, was his faith in God.

My co-worker was never a religious person when I knew him.  But roughly a year ago, he had an aneurysm in his stomach and had a near death experience.  This event shook him to the core and after resisting leaving his native MN for many, many years, he told his wife that he would consider moving to Florida for retirement.  He got his affairs in order, dusting off his will and making sure his children and wife were taken care of if he were to die in the short or long-term future.  He began attending a church and started believing in a higher-power.  He was excited to retire to Florida with the love of his life and was thankful of the life he had lived.  Was this an example of “There are no Aethists in a Fox Hole?”  Did he begin to understand and see his own mortality?  Or did this event truly awaken something within him, calling him to something larger than himself and creating a spark in his faith journey?

Two weeks ago I went to meet with one of my listenees as part of our Listening With Grace Inreach.  I was delighted when the person I was meeting with suggested my favorite coffee shop which is tucked in the quaint but growing Johnson Street area of Northeast Minneapolis.  You see, I fought my Norwegian Lutheran heritage for years before taking in a Duncan Donuts Iced Coffee in the Hartford Airport after a red-eye flight on a business trip.  This was only about 2 years ago and now I have fulfilled my destiny and have begun drinking multiple cups of coffee on a daily basis.  As I pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the coffee shop, I noticed an elderly man sitting up on the pavement.  He looked disheveled and one of his shoes was off his foot resting on the ground a yard or two away from him.  It didn’t look right.  I finished up my phone call in my car and parked.  I began walking toward the man and another car pulled in next to me and a woman jumped out of her car.  We realized that this elderly man had taken a fall.  Assessing his condition, we determined he had a nasty cut in between his thumb and forefinger on his left hand from trying to catch himself on the jagged asphalt of the pavement.  He told us that he lived in the house right next to the parking lot and he had fallen while taking his garbage out.  We estimated this to have happened a minute or two before we arrived.  His color was pale and he appeared to be in shock.  He insisted upon us helping him up as he could simply walk back to his house, it was only about 30-40 feet to the back door.  Upon lifting him up, we could tell that there was something structurally wrong with his right knee.  His body writhed with pain whenever he tried to put weight on his right leg.  Walking back into the house was not an option.  I asked him if I could go get his wife, but he was apprehensive about that because she too was elderly and as it turns out not in the best cognitive state.  I determined he had a son who lived nearby and I went up to the house to try to get his son’s phone number from his wife.  After knocking at multiple doors and ringing the doorbell, I entered the home to see her in front of a game show on the TV which was turned up to ear-shattering levels.  I explained what had happened and she found a laminated card with important phone numbers which were written in what I estimate to be 100 point font.  I called her son and told him what had happened.  He arrived within approximately 5-10 minutes and we were able to lift his father into the car, where he planned on taking him to an Urgent Care facility.

Would this man have died had I not arrived to help him?  Almost certainly not.  But there I was, in the right place at the right time as a direct result of a scheduled meeting to get to know another Grace member better and to discuss what is important in that person’s life and to try to ascertain what our congregation could learn from this conversation.  What could be more important than being able to help someone in need?  Was this simply a mathematical coincidence that I happened to arrive just after this man fell and needed help?  Or was this the handiwork of God?

This is the part where I include the disclaimer about having no formal theological education and admitting that I am a sinner who struggles with the concepts of faith and divine intervention.  My education in Engineering leads me to think “If God put me in the Right Place at the Right Time to help this individual, then did he also put my Coworker and my Step-Father in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time?  And if so, why would he do that?”.  I realize as I think this, it’s a victim’s mentality and a drastic oversimplification of the incredibly complex topics of faith and divine intervention. 

Going back to my co-worker’s funeral where I spoke and told the family and friends in attendance that there is a reason that I went into the Electrical Industry and am not a Lutheran Pastor like my father.  I said it coyly, hinting that perhaps I was not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd which after a few self-deprecating jokes about my weight and nerdiness, proved to be untrue.  Perhaps some people thought I meant that I was a man of few words, which 10 minutes later they also realized was not the reason.  The reason is that I, being a sinner who struggles with the concept of faith, have not been adequately educated or spent a significant time thinking about the “whys” of faith and divine intervention.  The truth is that I do see myself more like my Father than I have previously cared to admit.  Sure, I am an ultra-competitive engineer with a type A personality and am goal-driven to solve problems like my Mother and that will never change as that’s inherent to who I am.  But as I grow older, I realize more and more often that I am being called to help people.  I am volunteering for more and more things as I try to be a good example for my kids.  I am trying to go out of my way to be there for friends and family as a listener.  If nothing else positive comes from this Grace Inreach, at least God put me in a place to help someone in need.  And it helped me see my calling to help more and more people in a variety of ways. 

How is God calling each of us?  What “coincidences” have we noticed in life that we shrugged off as a matter of “Anyone would have done what I did” or “I was just in the right place at the right time”.  All of us are in the right place at the right time, it’s just recognizing what we are being called to do.  And none of us are in the “Wrong Place at the Wrong Time”, there are numerous opportunities for us to do God’s work every day.  Sometimes it’s just being there to listen to a friend who just lost their job.  Sometimes it’s providing a compliment to someone whose self-esteem is frighteningly low and that may or may not be apparent.  And in the end, isn’t that what this whole Grace Inreach is about?  Determining how we can build a stronger community together.  Finding ways to keep fighting together for the oppressed and trying to ensure equal treatment for all.  Learning together how we can spread kindness through actions, words and more times than not we can do this SIMPLY BY LISTENING.            


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