Sunday, July 22, 2012

Death of an old-time Liberal

I went to a funeral / memorial Saturday to mark the passing of one of my tribe.  The guy's name was Merle Carlson and was an ordained ELCA preacher from the old Augustana (Swedish-American) Synod.  He graduated eight years after my father from the same seminary in Rock Island Illinois.  And the reason I knew him is because his son and I are good friends and share a need to compare notes on the subject of surviving a parsonage upbringing—which trust me, is a complicated subject.

Merle Carlson was the sort of clergyman we Swedes do not produce in enough numbers but like to point to when we claim that "our preachers are NOT like those morons you see on TV."  He grew up in the Swedish enclave of Jamestown New York and went to the University of Michigan to study aeronautical engineering before deciding on the ministry.

He was thoughtful, well-read, and lived his life as an educated man. He sent both of his sons to Harvard on scholarships.  Both of them recounted at the memorial how he made a habit of rising early, reading, writing, drinking a lot of coffee, and then waking his sons at 0600 so they could get in an hour of musical practice before school.  This allowed his sons to participate in after-school activities without neglecting their piano lessons.  Piano practice was done at church so in Minnesota, this meant going out in the darkness and cold for half the year to get to practice.  Middle class virtue met a very Lutheran manifestation of the Protestant ethic in the primacy of musical education.

For as long as I can remember, (Swedish) Lutheran clergymen have been politically much further to the political left than their congregations and Carlson was certainly no exception to that.  He wanted to go on a Freedom Ride in 1962 and missed getting his congregation's approval and financial backing by a handful of votes.  His attempts to integrate his church in North Minneapolis met with open hostility.  But he kept on and wound up with the sort of ministry so beloved by Luther Social Services serving the "least of these."

When my mother died, we had her cremated and had the memorial service a month later.  Give four preacher's kids four weeks and they can get VERY creative.  By contrast, the four Carlson children only had three weeks but they managed to produce quite a show including piano solos and original compositions, seven talks, and a commercial-grade 12-minute documentary on Merle Carlson's The Shepard of the Streets ministry shot in 1982.

This was a great funeral / memorial.  It used barely a word from the funeral service in the Lutheran hymnal.  The poor preacher was a very good sport about having his church and service hijacked by these children with a flair for the theatrical.  It lasted almost two hours and that was before the meal in the church basement.  Of course, I certainly approve of people re-inventing funerals.  And I most certainly approve of long and elaborate tributes to a life well lived.

One final note.  Just to understand where I come from, my parents were so much more creatures of the political left, they made Carlson look like a Republican.  And because perhaps the greatest of the legacies that guys like Carlson could leave behind were educated children with a social conscience, I took great pride in that memorial as one of the finest practices of my tribe.

1 comment:

  1. Liberal, the word, has been hijacked by political spin.

    But this generation of men, who didn't need the word to understand how to care for their fellow mankind, who struggled actively with their humanity instead of losing themselves to TV and video life, deserve all the memorial we can create without the crutch of a hymnal.

    I can only image how uncomfortably amazed I might have been at occasions such as these, gracefully challenging traditions who have lost sight of the forest for the trees. Leaving those such as me awkward in my lack of practice and struggling to absorb all the wisdom.

    Thanks as always for sharing, and God bless you and yours.