Updated: Apr 7, 2021
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Text: King James Version of the Bible Tune: George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. (I Corinthians 15:20)
Mary Hull Mohr, one of my best and oldest friends, died this Holy Thursday. She was my colleague, and mentor, at Luther College in the English department. When I arrived in the summer of 1968, she and her husband Martin invited me to dinner in their new home on Ridge Road in Decorah with their newborn son, Jonathan. It was the first of many such dinners. She had received a Ph.D. in English, one of the first women faculty with a Ph.D. A daughter of a Swedish Augustana pastor, she had grown up in congregations along the Mississippi.
A devout Christian, she loved the Christian liberal arts and transmitted her love of the tradition, teaching Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, Shakespeare, modern drama, etc. with great pleasure. She enjoyed the rich artistic offerings at Luther College, the music, the dramas, the concerts and in England where they spent several sabbaticals. She took her part in the administration of the college, working as chair of the English department and on major committees there. She participated in civic projects like the AAUW and other groups in Decorah. A fine seamstress and cook, she read everything, finishing her grading of endless themes every week before any of us. In addition, she was an active member at First Lutheran church where she served as president, worked on many committees, singing in the choir, and working with the Ladies Aid serving the huge crowds that filled Decorah for Nordic Fest. She also served the national church, working on its committees. She viewed with affection and amusement the complications of parish life. She and Martin were fixtures in the Luther College community until his death in 2019. Many will echo what I say here.
My heart is flooded with gratitude as I remember her--usually sitting in their living room talking with Martin and her--he offering acerbic comments and she exclaiming, "Oh, Martin!" One of my favorites is her delight in relating to me the story of an Easter sermon she had just heard on their Easter break. The preacher began the sermon with a statement of shock that there were people who did not believe in the resurrection. Where had he been?
Both of us had friends and colleagues who no longer believed in it. We both knew some who, when confessing the Apostles’ Creed, could not bring themselves to say, “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” She noted once as we were saying it that the pastor leading the recitation had been looking down, but at this crucial moment, he looked up almost as if to check for unbelievers. It is the basis of our confession.
As we discussed the sermon, she came to the conclusion that it really was refreshing to hear from a preacher who understood the word of Paul that “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:14.
In an age that prized doubt and irony, and confessed Christ with uncertainty, this was a moment to cherish.
That amused tenderness and deep faith fill me with gratitude and praise now as I give thanks for her and our friendship. Her witness to generations of colleagues, students and friends will persist for a long time.
Today as we sing and hear the great music of the resurrection, especially, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel's Messiah we think of those who have gone before. Handel knew as he was writing it that he was standing in the presence of a truth so grand he could not even eat the meals brought to him during the twenty-four days during which he composed the masterpiece. One day a servant interrupted him and he announced, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” His music helps us to see all heaven. Christians do this for each other--they show by their expressions of faith and conversation glimpses of what it will be like in our flesh to see God!
We talked about what it would be like often. (See the poem below). Sarah Hinlicky Wilson treats this in her blog Theology and a Recipe, opening up the notion that we can know something of what heaven will be like when we see Jesus returning to be with his disciples, his deniers, and difficult friends, ready to live with them in love and forgiveness. Sartre at the end of No Exit has his characters discover that hell is other people. Heaven will be other people, too. People of all kinds, some we found insufferable here on earth, or maybe even bitter enemies, but then we will rejoice in our fellowship around the throne of God.
When my mother complained once to Mary Lou that she was not sure she wanted to be in heaven with some difficult Christians, Mary Lou reminded her that they would be changed. That encouraged Mother, briefly, and then Mary Lou added, with her smile, "And so will you."
The resurrection of Jesus happened back then. But as Christians we know it is a living truth in our midst today. If we do not believe it, Paul says, we are to be pitied. That’s what Christian friends like Mary Lou do, they witness to us, during savory meals, idle conversations and formal speeches, they announce that Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Choir of New College
(I have to include this poem from a long time ago. Heaven was a frequent topic for us.)
(For Mary Lou who had the dream)
there were six of us
we were riding in a car
she said there was a brick wall
we slammed through it thinking
this is it
we are finished
we floated pleasantly out though space
free of everything
we just rode on the blue air
the sphere of crystal sang
we were changed to diamond
and no one shed a tear
we spoke sentences of light
countries of words lay before us
meadows of wild thyme and stars
we fell like water through the light
with no gravity to speak of
we looked at each other and smiled
we are finished
this is it
Gracia Grindal from Sketches Against the Dark, Blue Moon Press, 1984.