The Loss of a Lutheran Giant

Good morning from my corner table at La Casa de la Pradera,

While I worked on another blog extensively yesterday, this morning brought new information that has changed my focus. It seems that is how life works. I have lived it to a degree not recently experienced this past week. My reality of age is that those who were mentors to me have some significant time beyond me. That chronological truth leads to dealing with the finitude of our human lives. This morning I received an email from the President of Luther Seminary informing me that the other half of the amazing duo who taught me the fundamentals of Lutheran theology passed unexpectedly on Saturday, before the turn of the new year. It is ironic that I noted that some will not wait for the turn of the year that very day. Additionally, and perhaps as paradoxical, I wrote about him not long ago in this very platform when I spoke about the importance of Dr. Gerhard Forde. Dr. James Nestigen was the second profoundly insightful Lutheran pastor and scholar I was blessed by as a student during my time at Luther Northwestern.

Proud beyond compare of his Norwegian heritage, and noted by others, he was a consummate story teller. His voice, his eyes, and his unparalleled smile and unruly tuft of hair made every class an experience. His ability to articulate Luther’s Small Catechism and his insistence that we memorize it struck fear into more than one student, but as we worried, he would calmly inform us if we failed he would have his 5th grade son come in and show us how it was done. And he meant it. And yet after the admonishment his wry laugh and sparkling eyes would remind us of Luther’s understanding of grace. While the Nestigen and Forde show was always something to behold, what was more important was how together they would illuminate the understanding of law and gospel and the paradox of Luther’s simul justis et peccator in ways that still inform my life today. While there are many stories about Dr. Nestigen (and equally for Dr. Forde), it is perhaps the memory of an unequivocal tribute to the two of them, when a classmate, who was also a South Dakota farmer, named two of his animals Nestigen and Forde (I cannot remember if they were sheep or cattle). I also remember when we were working on our catechetic memorization and Dr. Nestigen told us about the background of Luther’s impetus in creating the Catechism. He noted that it was to be used for family devotions, and he continued that he did so in his home. He then offered an anecdotal story of an evening devotional on the Sixth Commandment with his youngest son. After asking his son what was the Sixth Commandment, his son, who had some speech issues responded, “You shall not commit dultry.” When asked in good Lutheran fashion, what does this mean? His dutiful son again replied, unabashedly, “It means we are not supposed to hump girls.” As our class burst out in laughter at the recounting his their devotion, Dr. Nestigen continued that he knew he would have to have a conversation with the older brothers. And then he broke into that undeniable laugh and his Norwegian drawl and the rapid succession of “jajaja!!” As you can see I remember that until this day.

I quote the words of my former classmate, and now the dean of the faculty at Luther, the Reverend Doctor Rolf Jacobson, when he noted in his use of Romans 3, “But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and it is attested by the law and the prophets . . . all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift . . . effective through faith.” While I write this abbreviated version of Paul’s important passage, the understanding of this relevance for us as sinful humans came to light through the lectures, the seminars, and the small group student meetings we would have with Dr. Nestigen. Another poignant time with him was in when he spoke to a group of about 8 of us. We were in Bockman Hall, and the then Lutheran Standard, the former magazine of the American Lutheran Church has published a piece about the appropriateness, and the growing difficulty of the use of “Our Father” as the beginning of The Lord’s Prayer. We inquired about his thoughts, and he said he did not want to speak in class about such political (and yet theological) terms in class. We noted because we were studying the prayer in class, it seems apropos. I remember him sliding his chair back and leaning back in it. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, and then he came back to earth, both in his mind and in the chair and peered at us through his glasses, and stated simply, ” You know what happens when you put pearls before swine.” Then he paused as we started back at him. Then he launched into the understanding of the term father and was quite emphatic as well as intimated. It was apparent that in spite of the significant move in the mid-80s toward inclusive language, he did not see this term as sexist. And in fact, he pretty well flat-out rejected that line of reasoning. While I do not remember all he said, what I do remember about his remarks, which were Luther-esque, earthy, and somewhat blunt, he, again, in his way shared to stories. He noted that in his home he was the person who baked bread; we was the person who did a great deal of the cooking, and it was he would spent significant time making sure the house was managed. As I remember, his wife, Carolyn, was a pretty prestigious lawyer in the metro. His second story, which was a bit more shocking, but thoroughly Nestigen, it was about his mother. He noted that his mother was in the first college class where women were allowed to attend at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. What he said next still shocks me . . . he said, “Men on campus whistled at my mother regularly, and it was not because she was attractive!” Again he peered at our speechless faces, laughed, and went back to his lecture. While he was incredibly good natured, he would be a pillar when it came to thing he believed. Perhaps I learned as much about law and gospel through his actions as I did by his words.

What I understand now about this amazing person was how what he taught helped me as a parish pastor. It was his understanding of the catechism and and his ability to instill it into our lives as both future pastor, as humans, that would serve me when I was to teach confirmation (affirmation of baptism as it would be called then) or when I did pre- baptismal visits that the words of this incredible duo would ring in my ears. And yet perhaps as I have continued in life, the part of the catechism that has the most profound affect on me now is that section referred to as the Office of the Keys. It is in that place that the true grace of God rings the brightest for me. It is the power of forgiveness, and not only the amazing freedom in forgiveness of our Creator, but more importantly our ability to provide forgiveness, absolution, for our brothers and sisters. The power in that loosening of the bonds of guilt or shame we have when we have wronged the other is unparalleled. Too often we dismiss an apology with a “It’s okay.” or a ‘Don’t worry about it.” and yet that is precisely when we do need to worry about it. It is at that point we have the profound ability to provide forgiveness and freedom from the burden the other carries. This is the true graciousness of God and the gift provided when we gift absolution to those around us. This is the grace I believe Dr. Nestigen understood, and the grace he taught those in his class. While I imagine his family and closest associates are still reeling at the loss of this giant of the Lutheran Church. He would not want us to be burdened. He would turn and smile at us with the incredibly infectious smile and look through his glasses and would encourage us to continue on our own faithful journeys. He would push us to see life as a gift and an opportunity to share his profound understanding of law/gospel and a loving Christ. It once again is appropriate to say to this North Dakota Norwegian . . . “we done good and faithful servant.” Jajajajaja . . . you betcha! Thank you for all you taught me and for bringing my faith to life. Thank you for keeping me steadfast, even when I feel unworthy.

It is with humility that I offer this tribute to my mentor and a incredible human.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

2 thoughts on “The Loss of a Lutheran Giant

  1. Dr. Martin,

    From the stories you use to reminisce about your late former teacher, it is clear to see how much he meant to you as both a mentor and an individual. I find it unique that those in academia who impact our lives the most do so through their perspective on the world and the way they view others and not through the information they teach. During my career at Bloomsburg University and beforehand when I was in high school, I have been lucky to encounter a few individuals who not only taught me important knowledge that will serve me well throughout my life, but also have served as role models and have led by example on how to face and interact with the world. While I am fortunate that I have not needed to mourn the loss of any of these mentors that I also consider friends, it is a struggle to be removed from the positivity and unique viewpoints they brought to class each and every day.

    I am sorry for your loss of this great mentor who played a formative role in your life. It is a sorrowing experience to lose those who have shaped us, but does allow us a chance to be reflective on how a single person in the large world can have such a large impact on who we are destined to become as we age and learn.

  2. I am sorry to hear about your loss. Its a shame that we can’t keep our mentors around for forever. When I left high school I failed to stay in contact with the mentors I had. I hope that in college I don’t make the same mistake. My sisters tell me about the professors they still talk to, giving them important tidbits beyond the classroom. I do not really talk to my professors, I’ve never been much of a people person. I think that this semester I will start meeting with these professors and creating mentors. I feel as though the mentors I have in my life have been questionable to say the least.
    Age is an important part of life that we do not thing of enough. Why do people disregard the advice of those who are older than they are? I never understood why younger people brush off what older people have to say, I feel as though people cannot be outdated. Looking back to my life in high school shows me that in 4 years I have developed significantly. This makes me think about how much someone at the age of 60 has developed. I value the words of someone who has lived the three times the amount of time I have spent on this Earth. Knowing this, people have a finite amount of time. Knowing they did something that has moved on through the generations must make them proud. Using the tools your mentors gave you to teach your students would make them proud. Information is legacy, the things we do do not matter as much as the information that we have that is then preserved through the people we help.

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