This blog is about connections. I have written about degrees of separation before and this blog shows how small the world is and how small the LCMS can be. In 1976 I was sent to Helena Montana to vicar under Pastor Wendland.
My wife and I took two cars and a small dog and a home made trailer and travelled back roads looking for adventures. We went from Missouri to Colorado and through Wyoming up to Yellowstone and the real adventure began. Because we had a dog no one wanted to rent us an apartment and so Pastor Wendland found us a construction engineers place that was basically one room with a kitchen and bath. He had some folks donate furniture – a couch that became a bed and a table with two chairs for the small kitchen and we were set. I am not complaining because we got to keep the dog but that small house was the cause of endless stories and jokes that I don’t have time to relate right now. Until we found the house we stayed with the Wendlands and their 7 children. They were in the middle of refurbishing an historic home up on the hill in Helena and it was a fascinating place to be. My wife and I and our dog were quite an addition to a very active and confusing domicile.
Pastor Wendland was a ball of energy that never seemed to sit still. We went through three pots of coffee in the mornings as we figured out the day and who would do what. The days were divided into hospital and shut in calls and visiting new people that were moving into town and sometimes helping them move in. Helena was starting to go into a huge growth cycle and the church was growing as well. Adult information classes were a large part of our life and took much time. We spent an inordinate (I thought) amount of time in sermon preparation and looking at the texts that would come up each Sunday. I preached every other Sunday but we both looked at and studied the text and worked out different emphasis and themes. I finally figured out that the sermon is, in effect, the most important thing that a pastor does because that is the main thing he is called to do.
I figured out early that Pastor Wendland had been in Minot, North Dakota at St. Marks and was the North Dakota District Vice President. He was Pastor and good friend of my relatives and great uncles and aunts. They were so close that when Pastor moved from Minot they hauled his stuff to Helena.
The connections get truly strange as I look at the fact that Pastor Larry LaDossor was in Montana where I met him and he later took the call to St. Mark’s. The last time I saw him was in Spring Valley MN were he was attending a service and presentation I was conducting on LCMS Missions and Mercy. I was invited there by John Edson a member of the Board for International Missions and knows Pastor Wendland because his brother in law is married to Pastor Wendland”s, daughter Beth. The St. Mark’s congregation later called my friend and fish cleaning buddy Carlyle Roth to be their Pastor and Roth had been connected to the Pastor who confirmed me years ago.
It was through Pastor Wendland that I met an amazing theologian named George Wollenberg who was the Montana District President. Through these two Pastors I learned about the need for Biblical reconciliation among Pastors and congregations as well as individual Christians. We spent a day wandering the Custer battlefield at the Little Big Horn and discussing the history of the range wars. Wollenberg invited me to do a paper at the Montana District Pastor’s Conference and I believe I was the first vicar to ever do so. It was an honor but also the most terrifying event of my young life, and I had worked in a mine. As I read my paper Dr. Wollenberg would reach into his enormous satchel and pull out books that I quoted from and check my footnotes.
Wendland was patient with a new vicar and endlessly interesting in his approach to ministry. Like the Pharisees of old he would travel long distances to make a convert, but unlike them he was pure Gospel and mercy. The illimitable condescension of Christ was a lodestar that led him to search and find the folks who knew nothing of that condescension and hence were doomed. He cared for the folks in the church as well, but his true passion was finding the lost who had never heard of a Sheperd who died that they night live.
Patient with a vicar he had no time for pomposity and clerical bombast. Bloviating from the pulpit was frustrating to him and this paragraph would probably have driven him crazy. “Say it simple and treat the text with respect”, he told me. “Jesus and Peter and Paul said it all a long time ago. Preach it, explain it when you have too, but just preach it”. What was the it? Christ died for sinners and sinners are what we are.
He taught me how to fish for trout with marshmallows which I thought was insane, but he always had a full stringer.
He told me that I should not worry that he caught more fish than I did because when I got ordained I would be the guy in the group that caught the most fish. That prophecy came true until I started fishing with other preachers.
He taught me how to crochet in order to calm down and keep the blood pressure low. I made a giant grannie square and quit.
I don’t believe that I ever saw him just sit and relax. He had to do something and that restless, fidgety, energy had to accomplish something, produce something, get somewhere or fix something. Every waking moment and sometimes dreaming moments where fodder for a sermon and he was a great preacher. You never left a Wendland sermon wondering what he was trying to get at. Christ was the beginning and the middle and the end of every sermon and he distinguished the Law and the Gospel in masterful ways.
I heard that he was getting ready for the final journey and I remembered that his favorite hymn was “Let Us Ever Walk With Jesus”. I recalled the third verse from memory –
Let us also die with Jesus.
His death from the second death,
From our soul’s destruction, frees us,
Quickens us with life’s glad breath.
Let us mortify, while living,
Flesh and blood and die to sin;
And the grave that shuts us in
Shall but prove the gate to heaven.
Jesus, here I die to Thee
There to live eternally.
I was going to remind him of it but he was having trouble talking. He told me he was proud of me and suddenly I had trouble talking too.
He died while John Edson and I were in St. Louis for a Board meeting. We got a copy of the funeral and it was centered around this hymn. We missed the funeral but we were working on what he was endlessly interested in and that is missions. He would understand. I will miss the man and the Pastor and the friend. My prayers are offered for the family and the other vicars that he trained up over the years.