In November of this year, my friend Tracey Finck and I flew to Ocean City, NJ, to meet with Dr. Leonard Sweet http://www.leonardsweet.com/index.php author, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior http://www.liberty.edu/academics/arts-sciences/english/?PID=7627, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, and nine other people who gathered together to talk about books. This event was called an “Atlantic Advance”. “Advance” is a term created by Dr. Sweet which is meant to be used in place of the word “retreat.” Retreat, in the parlance of most of the Jesus followers I know, is a word that describes a time set aside by believers to seek a quiet, secluded place to pray, meditate, read scripture and have some time feasting alone with the Lord. But the word “retreat” also has the connotation of turning tail and running away in defeat. In Dr. Sweet’s view, Christians should not be retreating, but should always be advancing through the ups and downs of our Christ-yoked walk. Thus, even though our group did gather in a quiet (only because it was the off season) city, in a fascinating 1903-era boarding house removed from the present century by its architectural details and wrap-around porch; and even though we had times of prayer and scripture, and a few hours intended for solitude, the 13 roomies at the 2013 Atlantic Advance moved ahead on the sacred journey en-masse, with lots of laughter, a fair amount of tears, stimulating book-related conversations and amazing, verging on miraculous, shared meals. I understand the term “Advance” now.
Out of the 13 book lovers who attended, 6 people were pastors, so over the course of the weekend we heard some wonderful stories about other pastors. As I listened, it occurred to me that I knew a pastor story. The story didn’t get shared, though, because, 1. I am not a pastor. 2. Permission had not been granted to tell the story, and 3. I wasn’t absolutely sure how the story went because it had been 30 years since the time of its telling. Happily, I recently met with the friend who told the story so long ago. She, Brita Hillstrom Ylitalo, confirmed that what I had recalled was basically correct, clarified some of the details and gave me permission to tell this, as did Kirsti Uunila, whom I have not met personally, but who gave me permission via facebook . Thanks to both of them.
Brita, of Finnish descent, grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there are a lot of Finnish people. Many of these hard-working, entrepreneurial and friendly folks have a common bond in religion, primarily the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. Brita and her large family were deeply committed to this very conservative Finnish church, and were close friends with the head pastor there at the time, Reverend Paul A. Heideman. One summer when Brita was 15 years old, Rev. Heideman and his wife Eva opened their home to a niece. Her name was Kirsti Uunila. Kirsti was also in her middle teens and she and Brita became fast friends. Brita said that she and Kirsti were like shirt and pants, spending time at each other’s homes 3-4 times a week, if not more, often sleeping overnight. During these sleepovers, the girls would stay up talking and laughing late into the night, and were scolded by the adults in both households about being too loud, with threats of separating the girls from each other if they couldn’t settle down. The Heidemans especially were very particular about noise levels because their bedroom was directly above Kirsti’s, and Aunt Eva protected the Reverend’s time of rest.
It was during one of the sleep-overs at Kirsti’s, Brita explained, that an astonishing event occurred. Suddenly, in the dead of night, a hymn sung by Rev Heideman burst loud and clear through the floorboards. This awoke the girls, who giggled to think that if this song was loud enough to wake them up, Aunt Eva must really be irritated since the person whose rest she was protecting was making all the noise! But the commotion from the upper bedroom didn’t stop with one hymn. After the song came an opening prayer, then another song from the hymnal, then a portion of scripture. And next? Yes, a sermon. By this time, Brita said, she and Kirsti knew they were experiencing something extraordinary. They each were quiet as they lay in their matching twin beds, marveling and listening, experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power in the middle of the night, receiving the word of God in the sanctuary of the old Heideman house in Laurium, Michigan. The sermon seemed to be custom designed for them, as it was about living one’s life with intention, staying alert to God’s leading even in one’s youth, and in Rev. Heideman’s wonderful old-world style, he spoke about deflecting the slings and arrows of the enemy and seeking forgiveness of sins as a source of consolation and strength. When the sermon ended, there was the closing blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” A final hymn was sung by Rev. Heideman, then silence. The midnight service was over and the girls fell back to sleep.
The next morning Kirsti and Brita waited to hear what the Reverend and Aunt Eva had to say about the sermon in the night, but neither adult said a word, nor did they act as though anything unusual had happened the night before. To the young girls’ amazement, life went on in its usual routine. They ate breakfast, dressed in their summer garb of t-shirts, cut-off jeans and tennies, and resumed the pattern of traversing back and forth between their homes as they filled the carefree day with activity. Summer went merrily along. Life went merrily along. Brita and Kirsti grew up, graduated from Calumet high school and went their separate ways, staying in touch, but never living close by each other again.
One summer evening many years later, as Brita and I were putting our own children to bed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, Brita shared this story with me. We laughed and I marveled at the tale. After the kids were finally down, we each took a cup of coffee from the percolator in the kitchen of the old house, and talked for a long time about the peculiar calling that is the life of a pastor. How they are called by God to expound His word to a gathering of believers on a weekly basis, but their calling might also include some moonlighting – literally. They in fact, might be moved in their sleep by the Holy Spirit to preach to a couple of teenage girls in the middle of the night to encourage them to stay alert to the things of the Lord as they make their way into the world, as they advance, toward the life that awaits them.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”