We come to remember our friend James Bruce Nelson—Jim Nelson to us all—who died on October 15 of this year. I wish to begin with a gentle affirmation of that death by saying simply that he has returned to the mind and heart of God from whence all creation has come and to which all creation returns; from whence all love is conceived and where the fullness of love abideth always. We are creatures of this world. We see through a glass darkly, we participate only partially in that which is of God, but finally we become a part of that mysterious Reality that lies beyond our comprehension, yet envelopes us into its folds.
James Bruce Nelson—son, brother, friend, husband, father, brother-in-law, uncle, scholar, colleague, teacher, mentor, companion, man of the cloth, servant of God—has died. Let us grieve his death. Let us celebrate his life.
Grieving. The poet John Donne has written of the tolling of the bell at death, the bell that sounds the mourning of our loss. We know that loss—the empty space within our hearts where he resided, the ending of our time of hellos and laughter, of serious words and ordinary talk. As Donne wrote, in the tolling of the bell we know ourselves to be the lesser. We know our grief, a requiem of bells within us sounding our loss.
But we have the life of Jim Nelson within us. And we can know again and again from the soil of memory his presence and thereby move beyond grief to remembrance and celebration. For you see, as the poet Wislava Symborska has written in her poem on death, death cannot take away what we had. Death cannot take away who he was in those ordinary times and those extraordinary moments that remain still a part of us.
We could all say many things about who he was. Why not begin with his love of Mozart? In this service we have the richness of Mozart’s “Concerto No 1 in G.” Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, once said, “Mozart is God’s court musician.” Wilson Yates says the flute is God’s court musical instrument. And so I would say that Jim Nelson, one of God’s court theologians, listened well to the music of God’s own Mozart. He loved Mozart and believed deeply that Mozart’s works, the great Requiem, the works in this service, the comic relief of “The Magic Flute,” Symphony No. 39, gives us sounds through which we can experience the Beauty of God.
And let me speak of a more intimate and extraordinary moment. In my last conversation with him of only a few weeks ago, he knew his life was spent—for it was threaded with feelings of the final passage of time. But then, as if all we had talked about earlier in the visit had simply been a coda to the real matter he wished to speak of, he spoke of his children, Stephen and Mary. They were born his and Wilys Claire’s unbroken delight and joy. And they formed their indelible personalities in their United Seminary home nestled within its lively community. They became the tousled headed boy friendly to the whole world about him and the flowing reach of a free-spirited girl whose ideas and moral passion called us all to task. (Mary at 15 was our babysitter. She insisted that we buy at least 1% milk, if not skim, in place of whole milk, for the sake of Natasha’s and Stiles’ health. We did and we still do. Moral passion). They became amazing adults, he said, sensible and sensitive, persons of their time. “My children have made a difference in the world” and while they, as adults, embodied the vision and the passion of their parents, he insisted, smiling, as you can on the phone, “Their own imprint is the beautiful work of their own making.” And then, he said, “They are the children who are lovingly seeing me to my end.” This tousled headed boy, this flowing spirit of a young girl, this capable and loving man who makes things work and this beautiful woman who gave poetry to his life. “They are seeing me to my end.”
He was a father who loved his children, Stephan and Mary, fiercely—loved them without reservation.
There was his family life, his professional life, his life as a person. Let me speak still more of his family.
Where to begin? With Wilys, whom he had met at Macalester College, and married—a marriage that deepened into a sense of unity that bore them both through her tragic death. Where to begin? With him and Wilys while Jim was in the army? In a Quonset hut at Yale with two small children, or on the campus of United Seminary for most of 32 years, or in Tucson, their retirement years, or the places they travelled? The seminary was the growing up years. The rich years of becoming. The rich years of loving.
We cannot fully understand the contours of love that embraced them and was expressed by them. No one fully knows the threads of disappointment, of limitation, of the endless gestures of intimacy, of safe keeping that marked them as a family. But it was all there within their love for each other. And the family itself grew in that love: Stephen and Mary, Denise and Jeffery, and the grandchildren, Kristen and Brian. The contours of love that embraced them all.
And there were the amazing ways of being that fed their lives. What must it have been like to have been a young academic family without much money going on the father’s sabbatical by travelling across the ocean on the SS France, settling into Oxford and a British world they came to love, and, then, travelling across northern Europe in a Volkswagen bus eating peanut butter sandwiches along the way. What must it have been like to be a family with a scholar father making speeches and a family together hunting for Nelson tombstones in Norway, and then there was Sweden and Germany, Switzerland and Holland, Spain and Florence—Florence, beyond exception. Steve was thirteen, Mary was eleven. It was the winter of 1969. Who can ever tell of those adventures without threading tears with laughter. Who can ever understand, but the four of them, what the audacity of it all meant and how somewhere north of Oslo in the bus in the morning they might have stopped and said, though no one heard them speak, that we are a family. That is what matters.
There was Jim Nelson the professional man. You read the obituary. You know of his coming to United where he would become a major architect of what that school would achieve. You know of the degrees and appointments, the recognitions and honors that he received that said to the rest of the world that this man is a distinguished scholar, teacher, and minister. All confirmed by volumes of essays and twelve significant books.
His career fell into different areas of research, writing, lecturing, and advising. First was his work in ethical theory marked by his study Moral Nexus. And then he worked in the more specialized field of medical ethics where he became a sought-after religious ethicist working with both the church and medical schools. His many essays and his later work Human Medicine capped his contributions to the field. Perhaps the most extensive and important professional period is when he worked in the field of human sexuality. Within the context and with the support of United Seminary, he produced his groundbreaking study, Embodiment.
This period was the most collaborative—in which his own voice not only was heard by theologians and the church but in medical and social settings. It was not always easy. After the publication of Embodiment, he received notes from his colleagues in ethics disappointed in what they considered to be a thesis that pressed too far a Christian understanding of sexuality. The study of sexuality was fraught with fears from both those in religion and in medicine, as Jim Siefkes, one of his closest colleagues, who is sitting here this morning, could readily testify. But out of that work and in light of his work on men and gender identity, he cut new paths of understanding on how we can affirm ourselves as sexual beings and express our sexuality in ways that can enrich our whole life. And, finally, coming out of his own journey as an alcoholic, came his book Thirst. His journey, a dark one, threatened all that he had worked for and believed in. He began the journey to sobriety and then recovery with the help of his wife and a group of close friends who intervened. And through his world of people and institutions he saw the morning dawn again.
He was pre-eminently a teacher. People came from many places to study with him, including Mark Dayton, our governor—individuals who sought to explore how we should reason about what is right, good, and fitting in our lives and in our society. But foremost were his seminary students—many of you, sitting today in these pews. You well remember that in a given classroom of three hours or so he could lecture, discuss, listen, preach, engage in the deepest of dialogues, and still tell Ole and Lena jokes. He once asked me after he had been retired for some time whether those jokes were no longer politically correct. I said no, they aren’t politically correct and they never were, but since you were of Norwegian extract, and you made us all laugh, you got away with your dumb Olaf and feckless Lena—and we all were delighted and wished for more. He taught his students how to reason ethically and to arrive at mature moral judgments. But more, you, his students came away knowing that studying with him was not simply an intellectual exercise, but was at the heart of what it means to be a prophetic Christian in the modern world. Ethical reflection was the mantle he asked that you wear. He put it over your shoulders and you have worn it well.
And there is Jim Nelson the person—this complex person, this human being so acutely aware of the moral ambiguity of human existence, so powerful in his insights regarding how we should live in a broken world, but more, how we should help heal that brokenness.
Jim as a person. As he so often did, I wish to explore, through the eyes of a young woman character named Emily from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town something very important but for us here something very important to understanding who he was. One scene from Our Town that Jim used, between the characters Rebecca and George, is reprinted in your bulletin. It is our backdrop to the play.
There is a story from Russia about this play’s capacity to touch peoples’ lives. When the Cold War began to melt and the United States and the USSR renewed their cultural exchanges, Our Town was sent to play in Moscow and in smaller Russian cities. In choosing it, the State Department was told by American critics that it was too American, too full of sentiment, too unsophisticated, and would not be understood. But a reporter traveled to where it was being performed—in English—in a small city removed from Russia’s cultural centers. As the play began and the story unfolded the theatre grew quiet. In the Emily scene, the reporter wrote, there were tears in the eyes of the people, the ordinary folk and the party officials. When the play ended there was silence, unbroken, until finally endless applause. They understood.
In another setting far removed from Russia—the sexuality program’s Week of Enrichment—Jim read from the play. Year after year, he would read the same scene. We all would gather in the large pillow room where we sat on the floor to listen. By the time he began, the floor of students, increased in numbers as the staff and colleagues of the program came in to stand around the edges, all quietly waiting. His presentation proceeded until he said, “In Our Town there is a scene in which Emily, having died in giving birth, now finds that she can choose to return to earth for one day. She chooses her twelfth birthday, February 11, 1899…“ Other people close to her who are among the dead tell her not to do so, do not go back, for you will not find what you hope to find, but she chooses to return to earth. She first enters the town seeing familiar places of her beloved Grover’s Corners. And then she finds herself looking into her own home where her mother is standing at the stove. A family friend, Mrs. Gibbs, is telling the town gossip and various people come and go.
Emily, at first, is ecstatic about seeing everything. She says “I can’t look at everything hard enough.” She wants to reach out, to touch her father, her mother, but, of course, she cannot. She can only see what is unfolding on her twelfth birthday. There are presents which the 12-year-old Emily and her mother talk about with small talk. Emily, looking down, sees her mother expressing no emotion to her daughter. She says: “But, just for a moment now we’re all together—Mama, just for a moment, let’s be happy. Let’s look at one another.” (82). But there is only aloofness and the matter-of-factness of whatever is at hand. And the matter-of-factness, the endless insignificant chatter among the people, appears to Emily as if they are all blind to each other. Emily realizes that she should not have come. In the narration of the story Jim then reads Emily’s words: “I can’t! I can’t go on! It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look! (she flings out her arms) Goodbye! Goodbye, world! Grover’s Corners—Goodbye to clocks ticking—and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers—and coffee—and new-ironed dresses and hot baths—up! Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” The Stage Manager/Minister who has been with her all along, answers, “No—saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
I speak of this occasion in the pillow room when Jim read the scene from this play because this play, which carried its profound meaning to all who listened—from Russia to the pillow room—also offers deep insight into who this man, Jim Nelson, was in the marrow of his soul.
Jim Nelson deeply, sometimes desperately, wanted us all to stop—as hard, paradoxically, as it was for him to stop. He wanted us all to see and engage deeply with each other and in so doing know all that was there: the joy and the hope, the love and the sorrow of living on this earth, our home for a while. He wanted us to know that while on this earth, if we would stop and look deeply enough into the other and into ourselves, into what surrounds us and limits us, we would discover, as Gerald Manley Hopkins called them, “the deepest freshest deep down things” that are there for us to see. And deeply out of his religiousness, he wanted us to know that on this earth we are not alone and because we are not alone there is the grace that will sustain us in our trials, that will nurture us in our hopes, and will allow us to see the world with new eyes. There is God, inexplicable and mysterious, removed, absent, hidden, yet calling us, as Emily did, to stop and see each other and, if we do, discover what this beautiful earth, our home for all of our remaining days, will offer us. That was Jim’s sermon.
Jim Nelson has returned to the mind and heart of God.
Amen and Amen.
Wilson Yates Ph.D., President and Professor Emeritus,
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
This sermon is not for use by others without permission of the author.