Good and Faithful Servant

There are some people whose impact on your life is immeasurable. When I heard last week that my childhood pastor, Don Stolhammer, had gone home to be with the Lord, there were a flood of memories of a man who had great spiritual influence over some of the most formative years of my life.

I remember him telling the story to me, just earlier this year, of how he sat on a stump “out back” in Wisconsin and wrestled with God about going into the ministry. He chose to say, “I’m willing,”—and God went on to use him to richly bless my life and that of so many others.

One of the most invaluable gifts he gave was that of a solid foundation in sound Biblical doctrine. I was too busy soaking it all in when I was young to fully appreciate what I was getting, but looking back now I am deeply grateful for the depth, clarity and thoroughness of his teaching. I can literally still hear the way he explained certain verses and passages when I read my Bible, and how the marker would squeak on the white board as he scrawled it full of words, maps and diagrams on Sunday nights.

I remember him teaching us Greek words so we could understand our Bibles better. I was so fascinated by this, I asked him how I could learn more Biblical Greek for myself. He lent me a whole box full of his Greek study cassette tapes, books and notes from seminary, and also taught me how to utilize my Strong’s Concordance to quickly and easily look up the Greek meanings of words in my Bible. While I eventually decided that learning an entire new language was more than I could handle at the time, his lesson on the use of the Hebrew/Greek section of Strong’s stuck with me and is a tool I’ve utilized many, many times since.

I remember him quoting verse after verse of Scripture and encouraging us to do the same.

I remember him quoting A.W. Tozer and other great Christians, and how he liked singing hymns like “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Redeeming Love” and “He the Pearly Gates Will Open”.

I remember being a little bit in awe of his Bible as a child, with notes scrawled thick in the margins and worn binding patched together with gray duct tape.

I remember how he’d quote S.M. Lockridge at the end of the Good Friday service: “It’s Friday…but Sunday’s a comin’!”.

I remember him telling the story of “My Heart, Christ’s Home”, and I still have the copy of it he gave me when I asked where I could get one.

I remember him publicly apologizing to the entire congregation one Sunday for having a wrong attitude when he delivered the previous week’s sermon, and how much I respected him for his honesty and humility.

I remember that he was not some unreachable daunting figure in my life, but someone who was approachable, kind and always took time to answer questions and take genuine interest in me.

And so many of my favorite childhood memories, things like beautiful candlelight Christmas, Good Friday and Thanksgiving services, singing around the campfire at the parsonage, and weekend-long missions conferences, are associated with his leadership and ministry at Northern Bible Church.

When I decided I wanted to get baptized at age 9, I distinctly remember sitting down with him and my dad in his office with the 70’s shag carpet, every nook and cranny crammed to the ceiling with books, and one of the first questions he asked me was, “Why do you want to do this?” And, kindly but more pointedly, “Are you doing this because you see other people doing it?” That kind of brought me up short in my mind, because it was a little bit true. I had heard that another girl a little bit older than me was getting baptized, and I remember thinking that if she could do it, why couldn’t I? And when he asked me that, I realized that I couldn’t do it just to be cool like someone else. I had to do it because I understood what it meant and believed in it with all my heart. I remember how clearly and kindly he walked through the whole process with me, making sure I understood exactly the seriousness and significance of what I was doing. On a gently overcast Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, he was the one who dunked me under the water of Lake Dellwater while the crowd on the beach sang “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”.

In my adulthood, though retired, he remained a trusted friend and source of much wise counsel.

When we got married, he did our counseling and gave the message at our wedding. Later, as my husband took on and began his very first pastorate, Pastor Don made himself available to Zach as an invaluable listening ear and voice of experience and wise counsel.

One of my sweetest memories, however, is from just this last year. When we were considering a major life change and move, and torn over the multiple options before us, Pastor Don was the one who helped us see our way through a confusing sea of emotions and well-meant but conflicting advice. He was one of our only advisors who literally gave no opinion, but simply shared wisdom from his own years of experience in ministry, and challenged us to earnestly seek and follow God’s will rather than man’s (our own or others). His counsel was pivotal in our ultimate decision. The time he took, the prayers he prayed, and the care he showed for us during this time meant the world to us, and it brings tears to my eyes even as I write. He and Donna were there to give us hugs and assure us of their prayers at our last little goodbye party in Bemidji. “We’ll look forward to seeing you and hearing all about Alaska when you come back for visits,” he assured us. I did not imagine that it would be the last time we would speak face to face with him on this earth.

On September 30th, heaven welcomed a good and faithful servant. He is with his Savior face to face, receiving his reward. Our loss, his incredible gain. I only pray that those of us who he invested in can step up to fill the void he has left behind and carry on his legacy of faithfulness for Christ to the next generation.

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21)

The Tracks We Leave Behind

IMG_8091I’m standing at the back of a church sanctuary.  The overflow area has been opened, and they’re setting up more chairs.  The front is packed; more people are filing in to fill the back rows.  The stage is overflowing with flowers, plants and one stuffed bobcat.  And I think to myself: this is the picture of a life well lived.

Of course, as everyone says, Arnie was a bit of legend.  I just sit back in awe and listen to the stories of a man who knew the forest for miles around like the back of his hand, who just as intimately knew the ways of the creatures who lived in it.  His was the spirit of the pioneers, rugged and determined, undeterred, even buoyed, by the prospect of challenge or hard work.  He waded the twining maze of ponds and creeks, walked the trails for miles, and worked willingly with his hands, comfortable with the strength of his own arms above the convenience of mechanics.  If anyone has ever lived out that Biblical exhortation—“make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands.” (1 Thess. 4:11)—Arnie certainly did.IMG_9783There will always be a picture in my mind of Arnie, from my frequent viewpoint at the piano, that lean figure over by the east windows in his preferred row at church, denim jacket peppered with Trappers Association patches, big grin spreading from ear to ear.

Considering the sort of man he was, I knew I’d received a high compliment the Sunday he came up to me, shaking his head and grinning from ear to ear, to tell me he was impressed.  Earlier that week, in sheer desperation, I’d used a shotgun for the first time in my life to kill the groundhog menacing my vegetable garden, with a single (lucky) shot, and he’d heard the tale.  I remember thinking that maybe I could be a little proud of myself if I’d managed to impress a man like Arnie Peterson.

I ate a wonderful pie once made entirely of wild berries Arnie picked, made by his wife who shook her head when she described how he just kept “coming in with more”.

I remember Arnie in hip waders at the side of the road, not too engrossed in his labor of hoisting all manner of mysterious trapping gear into the back of his truck to wave jauntily over his back.  He didn’t even know who he was waving at.  He just waved because that’s what Arnie did.

And how could I forget the time Arnie knocked at my back door, grinning from ear to ear again, to tell me I had to come see the beaver he’d just pulled out of the lake in front of our house?  Of course, I walked out to admire the flat-tailed, yellow-toothed giant lying in state in the back of his pickup truck, and listened to the full tale of how he’d finally caught the culprit that had been felling our poplar trees.IMG_9776Yes, Arnie was a legend, and I’m sure that had something to do with the number of people flowing through the church doors on this March afternoon.  But there was something else, too.  There have been other skilled woodsmen who have lived and died as crusty, crabby old men.  For all their amazing practical knowledge, their circle of friends remained small, their influence narrow. 

No, this was more than a circle of mere admirers.  These people were not here based merely on the (staggering) number of ermine, muskrat and bobcat he’d trapped in his lifetime.  They were here because Arnie made tracks in their lives.  Not the hippity-hoppity sort of a rabbit bounding across the snow or the measured tread of a wolf in creek-side mud, but that elusive kind that is not to be found on the forest floor.  It was the kind that sinks in, makes an impression and stays long after the trapping stories fade into folklore-dom.

Because Arnie loved Jesus, and so the love of Jesus filled him and spilled out into the lives of those he came in contact with.

Because Arnie could quote John 3:16, and would use it to preach the simple and beautiful gospel message.

Because Arnie would love to bow his head with you and help you pray the sinner’s prayer.

Because Arnie knew, and let those around him know, that his last breath on earth would be his first in heaven—and he hoped to see you there.IMG_7238 editI’m sad that Arnie will never get to teach my children about the tracks of fisher, bobcat and mink as we’d discussed after church only one week before he went home.  We never suspected that he’d made his last trek through one of those double doors so soon, and as abruptly as a rabbit trail ends in the wing-print of an owl, be off to praise his Maker in person.  But he’s left his own tracks of far greater worth across the landscape of our church and community, that will not be obscured by tomorrow’s snowfall, and will bear fruit into eternity—and for that, we’re all grateful.

“Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in His commandments…his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD…[he] will be remembered forever.” (Psalm 112:1,7,6)

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)

Rhubarb and a Legacy That Lives On

rhubarb / rejoicing hillsWhen the giant rhubarb leaves began to unfurl their creases and wrinkles out by the milk house this spring, it was hard not feel a little happy-sad at the sight.  One of the plants in my flourishing patch, the best one on the end with the slenderest brightest red stems,  isn’t original to the property like the others are.  It was a gift to me the spring I was a new bride, expecting my first child and eagerly planning our very first garden at the house we had recently moved into.

I had stopped at my nearly 90-year-old grandpa’s house to pick up a few of the vegetable plants from his little homemade greenhouse, the extras from his own ambitious garden that he had always offered to family year after year.IMG_1870“Do you have any rhubarb at the new place?” Grandpa asked, as he tucked sturdy tomato plants, peppers and cabbage into a wooden flat for me.  The white Styrofoam cups squeaked against each other as he splashed them liberally with a scoop of collected rainwater.  He scrawled the variety names onto a yellow page from an old auction receipt book, garden dirt beneath his nails, fingers big and rugged around the stub of a pencil.  “Rutger is a new variety,” he noted.  “Nice and early, and great flavor.  I searched all over town to find seed after I tasted one last year; finally found it at Fleet for ninety cents a packet.  Can’t beat that price!  Oh, and you’ll want some of these Sugar Cherry, too.  Just like candy.”

I nodded in agreement, then replied, “No, there’s no rhubarb at our new place; I’ll be able to get some from Mom’s garden, though—“  But he hadn’t heard the last part of my sentence, only the word “no”.  “My rhubarb really took off this spring,” he said proudly, grabbing a shovel leaning against a nearby shed, and heading off purposefully towards the garden.  “I’ll dig you up one.”

Pleased at the unexpected offer, I followed him along the little path through the row of pines that separated the house from the garden, ducking and stepping high to miss the elaborate system of electric wires that guarded his carefully cultivated vegetables from hungry critters.  A row of butter crunch lettuce made a brilliant yellow-green ruffle against the black dirt of the freshly tilled soil; further down, I could see the shadows of more greenhouse plants like the ones he had put in a flat for me, growing sturdy beneath their hand-cobbled mini greenhouses of wire and plastic.  As usual, his garden was in weeks before anyone else’s and thriving.  He stooped to pull a couple radishes, shaking off the dirt before he handed them to me.  “You better take a couple of those, too.”

rhubarb leaf / rejoicing hillsUp by the raspberry patch, he searched among the big leaves of the rhubarb until he found an off-shoot plant, just the right size to survive a transplant well.  He lifted it out and I held a plastic shopping bag open.  He dumped it unceremoniously inside.  It always boggled my mind how he could treat tender young plants with such carelessness yet have them perform so beautifully under his care.  If only the plants under my care could grow half so well—was that careless confidence the key, I wondered to myself?

A generous splash of water back at the greenhouse was the finishing touch.  “Put some good manure around that when you plant it and you should have rhubarb to pick next year,” he declared confidently, wiping his hands off on the sides of his tan coveralls.  I tucked the bag into the back of my vehicle next to the flat of tomatoes and promised to take good care of it.IMG_4590When we moved again the following spring, that rhubarb plant came with me even though I was aware that there was already a well-established patch at our new place.  Being transplanted twice like that set it back for a while, but by the next spring, thanks to several of those recommended scoops of “good manure”, I pulled my first stems of Grandpa’s rhubarb.

I mixed up a batch of old-fashioned rhubarb custard bars first, the kind I have fond memories of my mom making for us when I was a child.  The small red squares of stem glimmered like tart pink jewels encrusted in the creamy yellow custard, and I thought smilingly of Grandpa as I sampled a sweet slender square still warm from the oven.  I told him of my success the next time I saw him.

He was pleased.rhubarb custard bars / rejoicing hillsLast fall, Grandpa went home to be with the Lord, and so this spring, the little tractor and plow that he used to turn the soil to velvet sat silent in the shed.  His rhubarb plants unfurled and went to seed because no one was there in the little white house beyond the pines to pluck off the seed pods.  The greenhouse was sold at the estate auction to a neighbor and the little bent wire plant cages covered clumsily in plastic and held together with twine went into a dumpster.

But out by my milk house, a little piece of Grandpa’s love for the soil grew on.

I thought of him as I walked out one dewy morning with my little girls, his first great-grandchildren, to pick the first stems of the year.  I showed them how to reach down low to pull the stems so that they didn’t break and nothing was wasted, remembering his very last words to me as he grasped my hand from where he lay on the hospital bed.  “You take good care of those little girls now.”  The admonition echoed in my mind as they pretended that the big leaves were umbrellas and used butter knives to “help” me cut the red stems into small squares when we got back to the house.  IMG_4480I beat together sugar and golden-yolked farm eggs, and folded the tart chunks into the yellow custard while they stood on chairs and watched.  The legacy of love for things that grow had begun for yet another generation and I knew Grandpa would be pleased.  Later, I thought of this Scripture passage as I pulled the pan of bars out of the oven and set them on a rack to cool:

“How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, Who walks in His ways.  When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, You will be happy and it will be well with you.” (Psalm 128:1-2)

That was Grandpa, literally and figuratively.  Because he also left behind a legacy that was much greater than a love for things that grow from the earth.  The greatest legacy he left behind was a deep love for the Creator of the earth.

There’s a well-used Bible, liberally highlighted and underlined, stored safely at a family member’s house now, with a long list of dates in the back recording each time he had read the beloved Book from cover to cover.

Many, many times.IMG_7242 (683x1024)It’s the one physical thing we have left as a testimony to his decades of walking with the Lord and we treasure it.  It is my greatest hope and prayer, however, that this legacy won’t remain locked up tidily in a safe to crumble away and die there like my rhubarb plant would have without sunlight and soil.  I hope it, too, will send out little shoots, and grow and flourish for generations to come, not in the fertile black soil of a garden, but in the soil of my heart, and the hearts of all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and beyond.  It was his greatest desire as he died, and will, in eternity, be his greatest joy.

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)IMG_9627And best of all, even when all the things of this earth pass away, including all rhubarb plants of sentimental value—that is a legacy that can never perish or be taken away.

For more happy memories of my grandpa, see here.



Lessons from Grandpa

flaming maple / rejoicing hillsHe taught me that getting old didn’t mean you quit living—and that you could still go swimming every day and play volleyball and travel the world when you were maple leaf / rejoicing hillsHe taught me not to be afraid to dream and to try new and crazy things.  Start a restaurant!  Convert a roller skating rink into a church building!  Plant potatoes a month earlier than anyone else in the county!  Invent an automatic bed-making machine!

turning leaves / rejoicing hillsmaple leaves / rejoicing hillsHe  taught how to put my own worms on my own hook and know how to tie proper knots so I could change my own lures. It was from him that I learned that lunch in a fishing boat could legitimately consist of a can of pop and a candy bar.  He also taught me the art of telling people how many fish we caught without revealing where we caught them, and how to sweet talk ’em when they weren’t biting.

maple tree / rejoicing hillsHe taught me that ice cream was a vegetable—and should, accordingly, be eaten as often possible, preferably topped with homegrown raspberries.  And chocolate and caramel and nuts and hard cookies.  But he also taught me that vegetables (the real ones) were pretty amazing, too.

fallen leaves / rejoicing hillsHe taught me that one didn’t need an advanced education to write witty and thoughtful letters in your grandchildren’s birthday cards.

He taught me how to judge a good dairy cow, and then how to care for her after I took his advice and bought her.

He taught me that it’s possible for a lame pun to be hilarious, when said with that much mischief twinkling in one’s eyes.

He taught me how to make Spanish omelettes.

He taught me that fashion statements can be made with coveralls just as well as bolo ties, matching belt buckles and fancy cowboy boots.  That having hard candy in your pocket is a great way to win friends and influence people.  And that a hearty splash of gasoline will cure a bad case of poison ivy (much to my mother’s dismay…).

You were only ninety-one young, Grandpa—not old enough to die.  I’m going to miss you!

“For You…O God… have given me the inheritance of those who fear Your name.” (Psalm 61:5)


For more memories of my grandfather, see here and here.




See You Later

sunflower field / rejoicing hillsEarlier this week I got to say goodbye to a dear friend for the last time on this earth.

The doctors expected her to go anytime.  She couldn’t talk.  She couldn’t see.  They weren’t really letting people in to visit anymore.  But Walt told me, his voice getting husky with emotion as we walked down the hall to her room, that she could still hear, and if I wanted to slip in for a few minutes to say something to her, I could.

As I knelt next to her bed, I was quiet for a few minutes, a flood of emotion overwhelming me as I gazed at her laying there.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, what comes to your mind in moments like these?  For me it was a flood of snapshots, little memory pictures that added up to the big picture of who she was and what she had taught me in the short four and half years I had known her.

I didn’t see the tired, wasted body struggling to bear the final pains of heart failure.  I saw a beautiful little woman with sparkling eyes and spiky silver hair.sunflower from behind / rejoicing hillsI saw the perfect stitches on a lovingly hand-knit afghan she gave me at my first baby shower, all soft and yellow, like a new baby chick.

I remembered how she loved things that sparkled and how she’d end a funny story with, “…and we laughed until we were just sick!”

I saw and remembered the multiple times she had welcomed us into their tiny home with genuine delight and beautiful old-fashioned hospitality.  I saw the perfectly set table, surrounded by the sturdy wooden benches she was so proud to tell us Walt made, with tiny individual salt and pepper shakers sparkling by each place.  I remembered how she’d set out pickles and olives for us to nibble on beforehand, and wouldn’t let anyone help with the dishes.  I remembered how she loved to serve things to her guests that were just a little out of the ordinary and special, like apples in a ham sandwich or the addition of tiny dainty dumplings to a pot of chicken soup.  I remembered rhubarb slush and split pea soup and boiled dinner, and the huge jar full of more kinds of tea than I even knew existed.

I remembered the time I was standing in the back of the church with a restless little one, and witnessed her slip her arm around her husband and tuck her hand lovingly into his back pocket as they leaned their silvery heads together for the closing prayer.  It was the perfect picture of a sweet marriage relationship that had spanned over 60 years, the rare kind that everyone wants but so few actually have.

I remembered how sometimes I’d be sitting at the piano playing the prelude before Sunday morning service began, and she would pipe up from her seat near the back, “Sing it for us, Beth!”  And I would, even though an impromptu solo was the last thing in my mind, because you couldn’t say no when Dee asked.  I remembered the favorite hymns she’d always request, and how she convinced us to try “O Holy Night” from memory when we came caroling at their house one December eve.sunflower field / rejoicing hillsI remembered all these things about her, and more, and I knew I would miss her for all of them.  But the most beautiful thing of all about her, and the thing I knew I was going to miss the most was her passionate love for the Lord.  She was so eager to learn and understand His Word, so genuine in her enthusiasm over what He meant to her.  Her’s was that enviable joy that transcends circumstance, that had come forth as gold through the hard times of life.  Her faith was an inspiration to all of us who knew her.  I could still hear her voice, piping up strong and joyful from the usual back pew in answer to my husband’s request for people to share what they were thankful for:  “Salvation, full and free.”  That day was to be one of her last Sundays at church, though no one guessed it at the time, and she was struggling with health problems even then—but the confidence in her voice still echoes in my mind.

And the echo of that simple statement was why, as I looked down at her and the tears slipped down my cheeks, I realized that I was not crying from sadness but from joy.

Here she was, right on the doorstep, going to see the glorious completion of that salvation full and free at any moment.  I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than the moment when she would open her eyes and see heaven and her Savior for the very first time.

And considering that I looked forward to doing the same one day myself, it didn’t really seem right to say goodbye.  Instead I leaned down and said softly:  “I’ll see you later, Dee.  Will you tell Jesus hello for me when you get there?”sunflower from behind / rejoicing hillsA few short hours after sunrise the next morning, we received word that Dee had gone home to be with the Lord.  And it seemed quite appropriate that I had already chosen these photos of this gloriously happy field of sunflowers to share with this post.  If any flowers symbolized the life she had lived, they did, with their brilliant golden faces standing unashamedly tall and joyful, always turned towards the sunshine.  Over there, on a beautiful golden shore, she was lifting her face with joy towards the Son with nothing between for the very first time.

It was our loss, but her gain—and I was glad.