Father’s Day Trilogy – My Father is Gone

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This Father’s Day I’ve been remembering my own father who died in 2004. I want to honor him by posting three pieces I wrote then. This one is My Father is Gone.

The other two are

Saying Good-Bye to My Dying Father

Things My Father Taught Me

My father was born in a house at 17 Kolbstrasse in Stuttgart, Germany on May 12, 1915. The house is still standing. My father is gone.

My father, the Reverend Doctor Walter E. Bock, died in San Francisco, California on a Sunday morning in 2004, a continent and almost a century away from that day in Stuttgart. He lived a life of faith and love and laughter, all wrapped in stories. Here are some of the ones that we tell about him.

Dad was orphaned when he was fifteen. He got through high school working at a number of different jobs. He made sausage and beer and ice cream. He crewed on fishing boats. He was stringer for a city newspaper.

After graduation he headed to the city to make his way, but he found it as hard as many others have. Down and out one day he told God that he would become a Pastor if God would just help him out of the spot he was in. Years later, when someone asked him why he chose the pastorate he would say, “I made a bargain with God, and the son of a gun held me to it.”

To get to be a Pastor, you had to go to seminary and Dad chose the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity (BD) degree. The degree bore the signatures of some of the great men of the church. Dad treasured it.

Many years later the Lutheran Church apparently decided that a BD degree was not prestigious enough, so seminaries started awarding Master of Divinity (MDiv) degrees. They offered people like my dad the opportunity to upgrade to the new MDiv. All they had to do was turn in their old BD degree.

Dad refused. He thought the signatures on his degree made it worth more than any prestige a new degree could possibly offer him. Throughout his life people and relationships with people mattered more than an ephemeral thing like prestige.

He was always looking for new ways to serve people, to bring them faith, to bring them healing, to bring them comfort. In the late 1940s he realized that there was no convenient way for the people who worked in the city’s nightclubs and bars to go to church. So he started holding services at 3 AM, an hour after the bars closed.

Folks flocked to his church, but after a few months he simply couldn’t keep up the pace. He asked the larger church for help. No one seemed to think the musicians and bartenders and waitresses were worth it and the service was discontinued. That wasn’t the end of the story, though.

In time my father passed his idea on to others. Pastor John Gensel liked it and put it together with his own passion for jazz to create the New York Jazz Ministry. That was the way with many of Dad’s ideas.

They were innovative and forward-looking, but sometimes they were beyond the reach of what was possible just then. The same ideas in different times or in the hands of people with a focused passion for a particular ministry developed to serve people far beyond the circle of those my father touched directly. He never worried about the credit, only about the ministries.

Unlike many preachers, my father saw the church as something that needed to be vibrant and human and engaged with the world. While he loved to debate the fine points of theology deep into the night, he was constantly showing us that he thought human beings didn’t understand as much about God’s will as we often think we do.

When he was asked for his firm position on this or that detail of theology he often had the same response. “I don’t know the answer to that one, but I think we can trust God to handle it without me.” That was the kind of line that got you in trouble with church councils. So was the “laughing Jesus” poster.

It was the early sixties when Dad found the poster. It showed a very masculine Jesus, with ropy arms and big hands, a true carpenter’s son, and a man big enough to throw the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus was dark and he had his head thrown back in a giant, joyous laugh. The church council thought it was sacrilegious. Dad thought it was accurate. He kept it.

Every now and then he found a way to strike back. One night he got into a controversy with his church council. He stood up and strode out the door. The church council, a bunch of mostly overweight, older men followed him.

My father left the church and starting walking down the street. The council members followed. He walked a little faster. So did they. He picked up the pace. They struggled to keep up.

After a couple of times around the block, Dad re-entered the church and went back to the meeting room. The council members straggled in. They voted they way he wanted.

My dad didn’t just find ways around recalcitrant church councils. Once he took on the East German government.

After serving parishes and the larger church in the US for years, my father accepted the post as Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Representative in Berlin. It was 1965. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall were the realities of the day. His job was to show the churches in the East how to support themselves.

He and the East Germans had contest after contest as he tried to find ways support the Church in the East and they tried to stop him. His biggest coup was the Bibles.

Dad had LWF money to buy Bibles, but the East Germans wouldn’t let him send them to the churches in the East. He couldn’t ship Bibles in from the US or West Germany, so he had them sent from Finland, who had a treaty with the East Germans. They fumed.

Then came 1967, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation and dad arranged for westerners to visit many of the Reformation sites in the East. The East Germans got even with dad by revoking his entry permit the day before he was going to cross the border to visit those sites himself.

He laughed about that. “Basically,” he says, “I traded a look at the Wartburg for getting a thousand Bibles into the East. It was good trade.”

Life for my father was a good trade. He was never one to tell you how hard he’d had it or how many obstacles he’d overcome. Instead, he read his Bible, prayed for guidance and acted on what he thought was right.

When my mother took years to die of cancer, my father treasured the days they had together, took early retirement so they could spend time together, did what he could to help her and never complained, then or since. He never had to tell us what he thought was important. He lived it.

Dad never preached when he wasn’t in the pulpit. He believed that faith was vital and the God was real and loving, but he also believed that the test of faith was how you lived your life.

He lived his life to the full and to the end. He was home from the hospital for Christmas, in hospice care there, but surrounded by children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and joy and laughter. The next day he asked for a beer.

My father died in the apartment he shared with Barbara, the woman he’s been married to now for over twenty years. She was with him, holding his hand. Around them, in that place, are the witnesses to a lifetime.

There are medals and decorations and awards and certificates and plaques. There is the BD certificate with those wonderful signatures. But you don’t notice those as much as you notice the people in pictures and mementos and the books and papers filled with stories.

In the end, my dad’s life was a story of faith lived out in love and in service. He leaves behind many who felt that love and received that service and remember a remarkable human being who is now gone from this world.

In heaven, though, a destination he was sure of, I imagine Jesus beckoning him to the table. Jesus always liked a good story, and I have it on good authority that He loved to laugh, just like my father.

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