Shirley Dorland—matriarch of Port Hope

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She was, in a word, memorable. If you ever knew her, or met her for more than a moment, you could never forget her, even if only for that Phyllis Diller-like cackle.

Shirley Dorland was 92 years old when she was called home to the Lord on July 2. The last time I saw her was precisely three years earlier, when I retired and moved from Port Hope, Michigan. I had been her pastor for thirteen years.

And did we ever grow close.

Shirley was one of those folks who, when the call goes out for the need for helping hands, her hands were always helping. At church, she was one of only a couple of women who were part of both the Ladies Aide and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. When there was a church dinner, she was working it. Whatever it was at church, if it were something she could do, she was doing it.

As for her faith life, she made the most of it, always in the late service and always in Bible class—both Sunday and Wednesday—and always in the same spot. Until she could no longer navigate the stairs to the church’s balcony, she sang in the choir.

If she only were a church lady, I could not have crowned her Port Hope’s matriarch. Her attitude toward her community equaled that toward her church. Shirley’s obituary captured that aspect well:

She was a member of the Port Hope Women’s Club, was secretary of the Port Hope Chamber of Commerce for many years, member of the Home Makers Club, secretary of the sewing circle, and was president of the pinochle club.

More than a doer, Shirley was both spoken and outspoken. Never afraid to offer her thoughts on a topic, she also was not shy to say what everyone else was afraid to admit. As for Bible class, she never lacked for asking the pertinent question, often leading into deep discussion of a topic that was a curiosity for the entire group.

Often, she began, “Maybe, I’m wrong, but . . .” It wasn’t long before our combined gregarious personalities had found us fond of each other, and I so loved to pick on her. So, if the mood were right—and it usually was—I would be ready for her opening, “Maybe, I’m wrong . . .” and I would quickly slip in, “Yes, Shirley, you’re wrong.” Shirley would bellow, “WHATTT?” and everyone would laugh, and we would once again shake our heads and murmur, “That Shirley.”

I could count on her to be quick to speak. Once, during a sermon, I was to pose a question in a way that I was sure would get the wrong answer from the congregation. Even more, I was confident that I could do it in a way to get Shirley to answer out loud.

I got to that point in the sermon. I crafted my words and tone of voice just so. And, sure enough, from out of the pews came one lone, loud, “Yes!” I said, “Thank you, Shirley. I was counting on you to answer for the crowd . . . and to be wrong.” “WHATTT?” she bellowed, and the congregation was roaring.

When she was in her mid-eighties, Shirley took quite ill. Her husband, Don, had died in 2002. They had no children. Shirley lived alone in the house they had bought, which looked east toward Lake Huron and was provided a view of the lake before the trees grew tall to obscure the scene.

Shirley became homebound for some time. She was in great pain and convinced the end was near. I thought she might be right. I visited regularly. She desperately missed worship and being in her church. I communed her, of course, but paid my visits as both pastor and friend. Most stops at her house lasted way longer than the usual pastoral calls. It didn’t hurt that she always had coffee and cookies for me. Thankfully, she rebounded and was back to her old self.

Perhaps what follows is why she and I liked each other so much, because folks say the same about me. Shirley was loud. She spoke freely. She laughed easily. Getting her goat was no chore. She didn’t take it personally. She was, as they say, a real people person.

Now, for the hard part. When it became obvious that the news of my being transgender had become common knowledge in Port Hope, Shirley was the person who epitomized all of the church members for whom I was concerned how they were taking the news.

I so feared hurting these good people. I could only imagine older folks being jolted to learn about their pastor. I wanted them neither to be harmed in their faith nor angry with me. I longed for them to know that I still believed everything I taught and proclaimed when I was their pastor. I made a video for the congregation, asking some folks with the Internet to be sure that Shirley, and those like her, got to see it.

This past February through Facebook, Judy Schuett let me know that Shirley was failing. Shirley asked Judy to inform me. That act alone elated me so. Then, it got even better.

I wrote to Judy:

Thanks to you and Gene and Wally Schave for doing the work of being her power of attorney. Shirley sure relied on her friends, and she did so much for the community and the church to have earned the lovely return of her affection. Tell her that her old pastor said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” and that I so wished I could preach her funeral sermon.

To say that I loved Shirley doesn’t come close to saying enough. She meant the world to me all my wonderful years in Port Hope. She was one of the many whom I so feared that I freaked out with my situation these past couple of years. I pray that I didn’t harm her. In fact, I hope you can tell her that Julie and I love her, and then this most important thing: My faith in the Lord is exactly what it was when I was her pastor. My present struggles have only driven me closer to the Lord, relying on His strength and love more than ever in my life.

Whenever we would talk in Bible class about heaven, she would say, “I just want to get in. I only need a crack in the door.” And then she would cackle as only she could do. Well, tell her that I plan on entering that same door as she, and we will rejoice together forever with the Lord Jesus.

The next day, Judy replied:

We took your letter to Shirley today and she was so pleased. She wants us to give her sister Helen a copy too. You made her day, thank you!

Shirley didn’t hate me! I could not have been more happy! I broke down in tears of joy, which were mixed with tears of sadness because I could not be there with her. I am shedding the same tears as I type right now, so longing to be the pastor in the pulpit for her funeral.

At her funeral, I think sister Helen will be the only family who will be able to be there. The only blood family, that is. I hope, and surely suspect, that the church will be filled for the matriarch of Port Hope with her children, the congregation and community which Shirley made into her family.

A family which she served with the heart of a loving mother, and which gladly gave its heart right back to her.

I love you, Shirley.  I look forward to sitting with you at the throne of our Lord Jesus, praising Him forever for loving us.

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Another Port Hope tragedy

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Two days ago, we were chilled to the bone at the news of the sudden passing of Adam Reinke, aged thirty years and ten months, who hailed from Port Hope. When I was Adam’s pastor, things were always familiar and friendly with us. I liked him.

I recall first talking with Adam at Ramsey Funeral Home. Three months after I arrived in Port Hope. For the wake of his six-year-old niece, Carly.

Carly had been hit by a car and died almost immediately. Uncle Adam was riding bikes with her into town from his family’s house a couple of miles outside of town. Despite the quick-thinking action he took, it could not be enough.

They were only a block from the village’s edge. A block from our church school’s playground. Measly yards from where the speed limit drops to twenty-five. The lethal combination would be an elderly woman who perhaps did not have the vision or reflexes she once had, a young girl who would not benefit from the experience of an older biker, and a section of road where the shoulder immediately falls off and into the ditch.

Adam’s sister, Melody, would plant a white cross to commemorate the event next to the road at the site of the tragedy, complete with a stuffed dog to stand guard. This was the road on which I jogged the most. Over the next thirteen years, I must have run by that cross a thousand times. It always took me back to those sad days.

Adam was fifteen that year. So was my son, Addison. They were classmates in one of Port Hope’s smallest-ever classes. Their class began high school numbering seven. Only five would graduate. And now the Port Hope Class of ’04 numbers 04.

One did not remain in school to graduate. Then, Chelsea, only two years after Carly, became the second tragic death in my Port Hope pastorate. Three weeks shy of starting her senior year, Chelsea was driving home from a friend’s when—we could never figure out why; did she swerve to miss a deer?—she went off the road and so violently entered the ditch that her injuries resulted in her death hours later.

On the shore of Lake Huron, at the hangnail of Michigan’s Thumb, Port Hope is a village of 265. The countryside is very rural. There simply are few people for miles. Statistically, there should have been no more tragedies over my final eleven years as pastor of St. John.

Statistics, however, don’t live in the real world. Only two years later, on Halloween night, yet another single-car crash would take the life of one of our church’s high school seniors, and this one was surrounded by controversy: Did swirling animosity prompt someone to tinker with Derek’s truck and to bring on his losing control and flying off the road to his death? The police said ‘no,’ but so many questions remained.

As if we, this tiny community, were not hurting enough, the very next summer a young wife and mother of three, whose youngest I had just baptized, was killed only 500 feet from her destination when an elderly woman blew through a stop sign and slammed into the driver’s side, killing Amy immediately—but thankfully causing only a couple a scratches to her infant, who enjoyed near-miraculous protection from her car seat.

That was the end of the car accident deaths, but the tragedies refused to cease. They came with such regularity that I would lament to my brother pastors, “Have you had even one tragedy? Or more than one? We can’t go two years without having one.” Indeed, we never got to breathe easily for more than two years as we would finally number seven tragedies in ten years.

I came to call myself the Disaster Pastor.

The next was a terrible situation that affected an entire family. It began with the secret, self-birth of a child who was stillborn—or was he?—by the fourteen-year-old mother who had not told anyone she was pregnant and had a build that could hide the fact, to learning who the father was, to the mother losing legal rights to her four minor children, to their losing their home and our inviting them to take refuge in the parsonage as they searched for a place to live.

On the heels of that, one of our Marines lost his legs to a landmine in Afghanistan. Joey was a classmate of my youngest, Alex. Joey’s and Alex’s co-best friend, Shawn, made the trip with Julie and me to see Joey in Washington D. C., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, we were humbled at the sight of many men in various states of limb loss and stages of recovery, and invigorated by their determination to overcome their hurdles. Joey, I am pleased to report, has done good things despite his bad break.

The final tragedy was one that was not imaginable. Indeed, it was so inconceivable that for months afterward I would mutter, “I can’t believe I am the pastor of a person who was murdered.”

Rhonda’s marriage now estranged, she was moving out. Her husband decided, so the thinking goes based on things he had said, that if he could not have their young daughter under his roof all the time, then neither could she. He kidnaped his wife, drove her far from home, got a hotel room, shot her to death, then did the same to himself.

That was my final tragedy, but as I learned over the years that too many had occurred before I moved to Port Hope, they have continued since I left in 2014. Andy, a husband and father of four, died in a one car accident, and now Adam. And all of the folks I’ve mentioned in this piece were members of St. John.

Adam will be sorely missed. A hole has been excavated in the heart of his fiancé and their young daughter, and the large, tight-knit Reinke clan. His friends lost a friendly guy with a kind manner and a ready smile. No more will they find him in his usual haunt, the bowling alley, where he honed his talent for nailing the pins.

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He did it!  Twelve consecutive tosses of the ball to knock down every pin!  (Thanks to Michael Schave, from whose Facebook page I copied this picture.)

When my son, Addison, and I talked Sunday evening, in his distraught state Add got stuck on, “He was only thirty, Dad! Why??? I’m thirty!” My reaction was simply to cry with my son. Add already has learned how precarious life can be. It was two years ago that we nearly lost him, and he is married with two young children who would have been devastated.

I buried so many people in Port Hope—150—that I came to say two things: “Death totally screws up a party,” and, “Death stinks.”

Since we all hate death, and we all have death as our common enemy, to have the cure is the greatest human desire.

Jesus Christ is The Cure, He who went to His death in order to take on the cause of our mortality and is the only person ever to be raised from the dead never to die again.

When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies (John 11:25),” and when He declares, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28),” and when He vows, “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40),” Christ speaks as One who has authority. Who is to be trusted. In whom to place your faith.

I hate death. I hate being punched in the gut. I hate these sorrow-filled goodbyes. You do, too. Everyone does.

I long for the day of the great reunion, when my Jesus will make everything right. When we will be resurrected from the dead into immortal, glorious bodies, to live on the new earth forever. When there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

Until then, we persevere in faith toward Christ. We take every death as a punch to the gut, but we catch our breath and get back into the fight of faith. We fight the good fight because it is a fight worth battling, because no one but Jesus Christ has won the ultimate battle of life and death.

This Christmas, I hope you stop and think, “THIS is the true meaning of Christmas: Jesus came to live in order to give me the cure for death.”

Meet Ken Bush

August 14, 2013: I had to tell a close friend and church leader of my gender dysphoria. That I might transition. Surely, I would lose him. What happened is nothing short of dazzling. I leave it with you as I take the next week off.

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Ken and Nancy, with one of their precious grandchildren

In August, 2013, I began telling people, who were important in my life, that I was retiring from the ministry because I suffered from gender dysphoria. The first of those people was the pastor who oversees the congregations in our circuit. A week later, the second of those people was the man who was, and still is, the chairman of my former congregation.

And my very close friend.

How we came to be friends, and how he reacted to my startling news, is an important, delightful story to tell.

In May of 2003, I received a note in the mail from a Ken Bush in Indianapolis. (That’s right, where I now live.) In the note, he said that he and his fiancee, Nancy, owned property outside of Port Hope, would be visiting in July, and asking what time our worship services are held. They had tried to worship with us the previous summer, but we had switched our service times that weekend because of events at the Port Hope Festival, and they arrived to find locked doors. They weren’t Lutheran, so visiting at the Methodist church was a satisfactory option.

Ken provided his email address. I sent him a message right away and we were off and running, emailing each other almost every day for awhile, then about every-other day.

Ken had been reared in the Christian Reformed branch of the faith, and Nancy had been Baptist. He started asking me theological questions.

We had as thorough and wonderful a theological conversation as one could ever imagine. Ken did not only listen to me, but did his own reading. He was impressed with Lutheran theology.

Besides talking theology, we got to know each other. And like each other. I invited him and Nancy to stay with Julie and me at the parsonage when they visited over Independence Day. They did, and this kicked off a close friendship, with no never-mind to their being way older than Julie (shush about my age).

They visited the next year on their wedding trip after they were married in October, 2004. They had intended to build a house on their lot at the time they retired, several years off, but a number of things caused them to move up the move up north. Nancy was a nurse, so she was able easily to find work, and Ken’s job allowed him to live away from Indy, but he had to give up his yearly stint as a railroad engineer during the Indiana State Fair, having become licensed when he was fifty.

The guy loves trains and railroads. He can tell you about every line of track around, until your, um, caboose gets sore.

In the fall of 2006, the Bushes moved to Port Hope, and in 2008 moved into the house they built.

They had begun attending an LCMS church in Indy and joined it in 2005. In Port Hope, they became active members of St. John. The friendship of the four of us continued to grow.

Port Hope is remote. On the hangnail of the Thumb of Michigan, it is a tiny village, in a sparsely populated county, on the way to nowhere. I had trouble finding pastors to fill in for me when I went on vacation. Ken had some experience filling in for pastors and he willingly led worship when I could not find a pastor, usually once a year.

The last Saturday in May, 2007, I was having chest pains. In the evening, I went to the hospital. Julie called Ken, telling him that I was being taken to Saginaw and asking if he would lead worship on Sunday. “Absolutely.” This is the kind of person Ken is, always striving to be faithful to the Lord and to his neighbor.

Though they now lived in Port Hope and we saw each other once or twice a week, Ken and I continued to email about every other day, sharing news and continuing to talk theology. We tried to go out to lunch once a month in what we dubbed TAPOTE. When he treated, it was Take A Pastor Out To Eat. When I paid, Pastor became Pal.

Enter 2013 and my being crushed by my gender dysphoria. By summer, I had a plan to retire in 2014. I now had to inform congregation leadership and LCMS officials of my plan and why I was retiring. Ken had become our congregation’s chairman. That made it easy to tell him first in Port Hope, which I wanted to do anyway.

We sat in my parsonage office, midweek, mid-afternoon. Nothing else was mid; my brain and heart were hot with anxiety. I told him that I needed to tell him something that I never wanted to have to tell him. I then proceeded to hem and haw for ten minutes, with a lot of crying mixed in. He prepared for the worst.

Finally, I began the way I would begin the dozens of times I would have this conversation with family, friends, and pastors, “What do you know about gender dysphoria?”

Ken listened intently. He had a few questions for clarification, but mostly listened. I reached the pinnacle—“I might have to transition if I am going to survive”—and that is when he dazzled me.

You gotta know few more things about Ken. He is a very conservative gentleman. He’s in his sixties. Yes, we were friends, but I was his pastor. The Lord used me to lead him to be a Lutheran. Now, I just told him the most out-of-left-field thing that he could never have imagined.

And when I asked why he was sitting so calmly after my shocking revelation, he summed it up with this: “It’s a matter of being versus doing.”

I thought my news would be the end of Ken and me, but he was able to recognize the physical malady aspect behind my gender dysphoria. He noted that I am not “doing” anything sinful—for example, I was not having sex outside of marriage, nor was I planning on leaving Julie—but working to help my “being,” to solve my physical malady, even if I were to transition.

I was so amazed at his reaction that I pressed him about it: “I thought for sure you were going to be angry. That you would find this whole thing laced with sin. That you might just walk out of my office and never come back.”

Stuff like that was my concern.

Nothing like that was his reaction.

He really got it. He really heard me. He really grasped the physical nature of my condition and that I was striving to move forward in a God-fearing manner.

Yes, he was very sad that I would be leaving in 2014, but we both knew we would continue to email. One of his kids lives in Indy, so Ken and Nancy would visit us when they visit him and his family. Indeed, they have done so, and always treat Julie and me to supper: Take A Pair Out To Eat.

Ken became a student of my condition. He has read some books and articles, along with everything that I write. He has become well-versed in a topic that used to be for him as mysterious and misunderstood as it is for the average American. And he is a serious student of God’s Word, a true theologian.

In 2014, I retired and Jule and I moved away. It’s funny: Ken and Nancy moved from Indy to Port Hope, and Julie and I moved from Port Hope to Indy.

But we didn’t move a bit in our friendship. Almost every-other day, I get a newsy email from Ken. I gladly load up my replies to keep him up-to-date with our goings on. In June, they will be visiting, and we will pick up where we always leave off. My transitioning has changed nothing in our love for each other. Oh, and lest I forget Nancy and Julie, their friendship grew to be as dandy as Ken’s and mine.

When our visit reaches the point where someone asks, “Where shall we eat?” I will likely request my favorite Chinese buffet. No one will argue.

Ken loves the psalms, so I close with the opening verse of Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” Amen and alleluia!