Russell C. Sawmiller, Jr. 1927-2020

Last week I lost a mentor and dear friend who had been an important person in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He was 93 so his death was not a shock, but it hit me harder than I expected. Soon after I learned Russ had died I sat down to write this letter to express what he meant to me.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

Memories

dadonwayoutMy father died one year ago today.  On purpose or not I was too busy to think much about it today, but I do miss him.  I don’t miss the 2 hour drive to go visit him, but I miss knowing he was there even if he often drove me and my sisters crazy.  My dad and I were never very close, but in his later years I learned to accept him and forgive him for the things that bothered me about his attitude toward life.  He was too rigid and authoritarian – maybe things I haven’t accepted in myself?  We didn’t agree on theology or politics or child rearing philosophies, but in the end none of that stuff really mattered.  He was my father, and I literally owed my life to him.

He really did do the best he could to be the best person, father, husband, Christian he knew how to be. And like all of us he fell short of the mark regularly.  Like all of us he had to survive some difficult things in his life.  Unlike me and most of us he survived a near-death experience in a North Atlantic plane crash on his way home from World War II.  He didn’t talk about that experience and I regret that I never cared enough to ask him about what had to be a life-defining moment.  So I can only speculate on how the death of his crew mates in that crash or the 12 hours he spent in the water before being rescued affected him.  I know I have no right to judge him for his shortcomings and regret the distance I helped create between us by doing so.

All such life events have a ripple effect on everyone touched by them.  From that awful experience came my Dad’s conversion to Christianity, which led to my own growing up in the church and my career choices and how my faith and values have been shaped.  In many ways I am who I am now because of the engine that failed on that B-17 seventy-four years ago.

A friend told me after Dad died that someone had told him once we don’t really grow up until we become orphans.  I’m not sure I’ve made much headway in the last year, but I have a new appreciation for how fragile and temporary life is.  Things that once bothered me don’t seem so important anymore.  Maybe that’s a baby step toward maturity?

Thanks Dad.

Drum Beat of Life

This picture has been special to me ever since I took it. My dad was very resistant to doing any of the activities organized for the patients in his nursing home. He never did care much for anyone telling him he needed to do something. So I was very surprised the day I took this picture. We had been sitting in the atrium visiting when the activity director he couldn’t stand began to gather some patients for a drumming circle. I could tell Dad was curious about what they were doing; so as I was getting ready to leave I asked him if he wanted me to take him back to his room or if he wanted to stay there. He surprised me by saying he wanted to stay and even more so when he agreed to join the group, took a tambourine and drumstick and began tapping out a rhythm.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I would see him alive. He died two weeks later on February 12 of this year, and that final photo became priceless. I came across it while scrolling through the photo roll on my phone today and realized with a start that it has been 6 months this week since he died. The months have flown by, but every once in a while I stop and think, “I need to go visit Dad.” Those difficult visits as he was failing physically and mentally were often very challenging, but even so there’s an empty place in my life that he filled for over 70 years.

That last photo seems so right in retrospect. Music was my dad’s life for 80 years. He played his tenor sax until he was 90 and sang in several choirs and ensembles at the retirement community he lived in. He had his own dance band when he was a young man playing all the Big Band standards of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. He was in a church choir for as long as I can remember and had his own group called the Harsh Notes at the Otterbein retirement community. When he was no longer physically able to sing or play his sax a few years ago most of his reason for living was gone.

For my last image of him to be making music and to be doing so in a drumming circle is also special to me for one more reason. I know my dad was disappointed that none of his children inherited his passion for making music or his musical talent. Because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket when it came time for me to join our school band in junior high our band director suggested I could play the drums. My band career only lasted a year, but I enjoyed the drums and have a warm spot in my heart that my last earthly glimpse of my dad was of him drumming. Life changes and ends, but the beat goes on.

O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Reflections on Grief and Ennui

“I feel like I’m swimming in molasses.” That’s how my journal entry for today began, and it’s how I’ve been feeling for the last week or two. Everything takes more time and effort – running errands, figuring out what to do with my day—it all feels like I’m moving in slow motion.

If I ran a search for the word “ennui” in all my computer files I don’t think it would be found. Ennui is not a common word in my vocabulary, but from somewhere unknown to me it surfaced in my journaling this morning. Right after “swimming in molasses” my fingers typed “this must be what ennui feels like.” That of course sent me to the dictionary where “boredom” is listed as a synonym. That didn’t feel quite right. I’m not bored but the other suggestions did: “languor, world-weariness, dissatisfaction.” World-weariness especially struck a chord. I’m so depressed and angry about the state of the world and especially our nation that I want to scream.

The last 16 days have been strange and not wonderful. My father died on February 12 and two days later on Ash Wednesday the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School occurred. My personal grief and my mourning for those young lives snuffed out have been so intertwined and yet so different that I’m not sure how to sort them out let alone process them.

My dad was 96 and at the end of a long life. His quality of life has been in free fall over the last year; so my predominant feeling for him and for me and my sisters is one of relief. Those kids in Florida and their teachers were nowhere near the end of their lives. There is no relief at their deaths, only pain and anger.

Like life death is complicated. My dad and I were never very close. He coped with his own demons by being very rigid in his faith and morality and was often judgmental and intolerant of others with a different perspective, including me. As I grew in my own faith and worldview I rejected his way and too often him as well. I am grateful that we both lived long enough to accept each other for who we are and heal some of those differences. I’ve also come to appreciate that my dad’s high expectations for me to achieve excellence in what I did with my life was a huge motivation. I didn’t like those pressures to please him as a youth or young adult, but in hind sight I have come to realize he did the best he could as a father, husband, provider and Christian. That’s all any of us can do.

I have not cried for my dad. I never cry easily. I don’t know if the tears will come when we bury his ashes 11 days for now. I wish the other grief for my violence-addicted nation wasn’t all mixed up with my personal feelings. A friend passed on a thought to me after my dad died that has been bouncing around in my head and gut. I can’t find the source of the quote but the gist of it is that we never really grow up until we are orphans. I think I understand part of that. As the now oldest member of my family I have a sense of needing to be a role model. I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of patriarch my dad was, and I worry that I’ve gone to the other extreme to avoid the rigid, doctrinaire way he showed his love.

The running joke in our family is that almost all of us at one time or another received letters from my dad expressing his displeasure at something we had done or were doing. Those letters were not the most effective way to motivate us to change and usually created the exact opposite kind of rebellious response and sometimes painful alienation and broken relationships. From my earliest days as a father my wife and I chose a much more affirming and tolerant approach to parenthood—and we got letters from Dad advising us that we were sparing the rod and spoiling our kids. Sorry Dad, I still think we were right.

But how do I now as the elder of the clan be a responsible parent/citizen in a nation that I believe is going to hell in a hand basket? I have not written letters or emails to my Congressional representative or to one of my senators since the Parkland shooting because I know they are both intractable in their support of gun rights. They are in the pocket of the NRA and unmoved by the fact that the vast majority of people in this country want AR-15’s banned and background checks enforced. How they can sleep with the blood of innocent kids on their hands is completely incomprehensible to me.

So I’m angry, and I know anger is one of the stages of grief. But my question is how to break out of the ennui so I can function? Or do I need to live with it longer? I saw a sign on the news today as the Stoneman Douglas students and teachers returned to the scene of the crime. The sign said “Welcome Back Eagles.” The eagle is apparently their school mascot, but my mind immediately went to the Isaiah 40 reference that says “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Vss. 29-31)

We all have to swim in molasses sometimes. We all get weary. The exiles these words were written to had to wait decades in captivity before they were liberated. Waiting sucks, especially when our big problems of violence and racism and poverty seem to getting worse. Elderhood raises questions about the meaning of life. Have I made a difference? Is the world a better place for my having trod my jagged life journey? Those questions are more real for me this year because it will be 50 years this spring since I graduated from college. 1968 was not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. My college graduation was just a few days after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and two months after that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a time of political and social turmoil much like today and I wonder what it all means? Have we/my generation, have I made any difference or left any improvements in life for the generations to come? In the molasses my own demon torments me with the cynicism of Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Act 5, Scene 5)

I realized this week that the advice of Isaiah to “wait for the Lord” does not mean giving up or doing nothing. Faithful waiting is active waiting. My generation has not achieved the idealistic dream of John Lennon that the “world will live as one.” (“Imagine”) But we have seen that idealism and energy burning brightly in articulate, determined students from Parkland and from schools all over the nation. It’s time to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation. It’s time to admit our generation has blown it. Instead of faithfully waiting for God’s way we have drunk the poison of materialism and with it the fear and isolation of protecting our stuff. Our role now is not to be the “sage on the stage” but “a guide on the side” standing with and supporting the idealism and enthusiasm of youth.

I don’t know if or when I will soar like an eagle out of the molasses, but I know I have in the past and I will again. I don’t buy Macbeth’s negativity. Just writing this reflection is healing for me. But I still need the patience to embrace my grief and learn from it, and in those moments or days when God renews my strength I will, to paraphrase Gandhi, be the change God wants to see in my little corner of the world.
What does that look like for me in this new season of elderhood? When I figure that out I’ll let you know. Part of the value of ennui is learning the lessons of waiting, of listening to what my heart is trying to say to my over-intellectualized brain–and keep treading molasses till I find solid ground again.