Editor’s note: While I was looking for other posts to link to my year’s-end spiritual formation review, I came across this draft. Apparently I started it just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit town, and I never got back to as my concerns and priorities shifted dramatically. It looked like it was worth salvaging, so I updated it and changed the privacy settings. Here it is, nine months later.

Bio of Bestefar (grandfather), ca. 1920

My father was maddeningly even-handed and fair-minded. Give the other fellow the benefit of the doubt, he’d say. Walk a mile in his shoes. Even the people I couldn’t stand. Meddling neighbors. Tiresome old ladies, old men who smoked cigars and lectured kids on how times had degenerated once gentlemen stopped wearing white shoes and seersucker suits between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Teachers. Even old Mrs. ______ who taught __th grade (and was probably just out of the education school at UT-Knoxville and wasn’t old at all). Give them all the benefit of the doubt. Put the most charitable construction on everything they do.

I don’t remember if those are exact words he used, but I’ll bet they’re pretty close.

I found them in a 1929 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism published by the Board of Book Mission of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. The pamphlet turned up not long ago in a box of family papers. Here’s the full passage, exactly as Luther wrote it in 1529 (well, as he wrote it except for being translated from German and Latin to Norwegian and then from Norwegian to English):

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean? {Luther always asked that.]

We should fear and love God so that we do not deceitfully belie, betray, backbite, nor slander our neighbor, but apologize for him, speak well of him and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.

I don’t know for a fact that Dad learned the Ten Commandments from the 1929 edition of the catechism. He would have been 16 when it was published, a little old to be learning something so basic in Sunday School. Besides, he would have learned the catechism in Norwegian, and he probably learned it by heart, reciting it out loud.

My father was a PK, a preacher’s kid, and my grandfather or bestefar was a pastor in the old Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Brooklyn. (I knew of him as Bestefar, and when I was little I thought that was his first name.) Anyway, I’m sure he taught the lessons in Norwegian, because Dad liked to reminisce about his classmates piping out the names of the later epistles attributed to St. Paul, “TIM-t’y, TIM-t’y, TI-tus” in unison, in a Norwegian singsong.

My father left Brooklyn in 1932, to study forestry at the University of Minnesota. He used to joke (at least I think it was a joke, he had a dry Norwegian sense of humor and you couldn’t always tell when he was joking) that he went into forestry because he knew he’d never have to go back to Brooklyn. After grad school at the University of Michigan, where he met my mother, he took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Dad left the Lutheran Church about the time he moved south. As best I can piece it together now, there had been some kind of disagreement about his not being allowed to take communion in a local Lutheran church down South. But that was before I came along. Many years later, I learned the different Lutheran synods aren’t always in communion with each other. But growing up I didn’t knew exactly what the story was, and I didn’t care enough to ask. By the time I got to be Sunday school age, we had joined an Episcopal Church instead.

Anyway, I’ve come to realize in the last few years that Dad may have been an ex-Lutheran, but he was Lutheran to the bone. That realization was a long time coming, and it involved some unexpected twists and turns.

Growing up in the South, I was aware of my ethnic heritage. But to my mind, it largely consisted of Christmas care packages that Bestemor, my grandmother, would send us from Brooklyn. So canned fish and gjetost, a caramelized cheese made of goat’s milk, were as much a part of the Christmas season as eggnog, turkey and cranberry sauce. And her sandbakkler, impossibly light, flaky and delicious beyond any pastries I ever ate before or since.

The canned fish, by the way, wasn’t limited to sardines and kippered herring. What I remember best is fiskeboller, which is the Norwegian word for fish balls. (I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not nice!) Fiskeboller is perhaps most accurately described as kind of a fish sausage, and served with a white sauce and boiled potatoes it’s not as bad as it sounds.

How many kids in East Tennessee grow up with visions of fiskeboller dancing in their heads at Christmastime instead of sugarplums? There just weren’t that many Norskies around. Nor Lutherans, for that matter. Heritage was something you read about, or that came in the mail at Christmastime.

And Luther? He was someone I read about in world history. Or in John Osborne’s play. I read it in grad school at UT-Knoxville — I’d left the church by then, but I was big on English playwrights in the 1960s and early 70s. All I remember of it is that Osborne’s Luther was constipated. One of my major professors, Richard Marius, wrote a biography that was considerably more substantive and nuanced. But it wasn’t until my folks moved to the suburbs of Atlanta and joined a Lutheran church in Roswell, that I paid much attention to Luther, the Lutherans — or any other church, for that matter.

Two things happened to change that. One was that after my father died in 1997, my mother moved to a senior high rise in Springfield and joined a Lutheran church.

In a way, that was connected to heritage. As a newspaper columnist, I had written a tongue-in-cheek article about an Illinois politician named Einar Dyhrkopp, whose name was floated for some office precisely because it was considered to be such an awful ballot name. I don’t remember the exact reasons behind it — they were byzantine and entirely typical of Illinois politics — but I led the column by exclaiming, “Uff da,” a Norwegian-American expression of mild displeasure and/or amusement.

In short order, that column led to an invitation to a Sons of Norway lodge meeting at a nice little Lutheran church on the outskirts of Springfield. And that in turn led me 10 years later to suggest the little church when Dad died and my mother moved to the high rise. She joined, and rather quickly finagled an invitation for me to join the choir.

Which is how life happens, I guess, if you don’t plan ahead. You find yourself in unexpected places, and sometimes I think they work out better that way.

So at the age of 60 I found myself attending a Lutheran church. By that time I was teaching in a Catholic college, singing in a Lutheran choir … and on the whole distrustful of organized religion. I joined the choir before I joined the church. I’ve always loved choral music — another gift from my father — and the Lutheran heritage is equally as rich as the Anglican tradition I grew up with. But I didn’t consider myself especially religious.

Still don’t, in fact. If you ask me, I’d say I’m one of those spiritual-not-religious guys, but one who’s active in his congregation — even over Zoom during the pandemic — and who has a special interest in hymnody and church history.

Which brings me to the second unexpected twist in the road.

After I retired in 2010, by an odd series of coincidences I came to research the history of Debi’s family heritage, which is Swedish. My Norskie background is the source of more jokes than I like to think about in our largely blended and welcoming family, along with discussions of matters like whether the gelatinous fish stuff sometimes served at Christmas is lutfisk or lutefisk. (The Norwegian spelling, with what old-country Swedes would consider an extraneous “e,” is more common in America.) Anyway, I’ve been married into a Swedish family for more than 30 years, and I probably know more Swedish history by now than I do Norwegian. But it’s a family thing; in our respective languages, Norwegians and Swedes call each other broderfolk, brother (and sister) peoples.

Going up to the family farm in northern Illinois for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d hear Debi’s father talk sometimes about the Swedish immigrants who settled in the area — between Galesburg and the Quad-Cities — from the 1850s onward. They were stricken by poverty and recurrent epidemics of cholera, but the soil was rich and in time they prospered. At one point they set aside walnut logs for a steeple at the Swedish Lutheran church in Andover, a few miles away from Debi’s family farm over county blacktops, but they had to saw them up for coffins. But Jenny Lind, the opera singer, donated $1,500, and in time it became the mother church of the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod. The Swedes’ story struck me as one of the great American stories, repeated in essence everywhere by every immigrant group.

And it turned out that Augustana College in Rock Island, where Debi was a student and later where she and I were married, houses a repository for research material on Swedish immigration. (It’s named for a relative of hers, Birger Swenson.) And the college press, called the Augustana Book Concern, published English translations of the more important chronicles and documents of the Augustana Synod churches. Which means the history is accessible.

So by degrees, I realized I had a historical research opportunity fall into my lap at the same time I retired from teaching and had enough time to write anything more ambitious than “Be specific” and “What’s your thesis?” in the margins of student papers.

So far I’ve had a real page-turner entitled “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901-1925” in the Illinois State Historical Society Journal, and I’ve presented papers at conferences sponsored by the historical society and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and museum. My most recent paper, delivered at ALPLM in October, I hope to expand. At a time when immigration has become a political football, I figure it won’t hurt — and it might even help a little — to remind folks of the values that other immigrants, including their own ancestors, brought with them to America.

Somewhere along the line, between going to a Lutheran church, writing about Lutheran church history and researching immigration history, I started reading Luther more attentively. Including his Small Catechism, the one I’m so certain that my father memorized in a Norwegian Synod church basement back in Brooklyn during the 1920s.

And something clicked when I got to the Eighth Commandment.

That’s the one that says: Thou shalt not bear false witness. I’d always thought the commandment was about lying. But as Luther explains it, false witness is any kind of destructive speech: No lying, betrayal, backbiting and slander. And then there’s that second part of it — we should instead “apologize for [our neighbor], speak well of him and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.” I love the way Luther takes the thou shalt not of a commandment and turns it around into saying thou shalt do this instead. And I remembered my father’s maddening fair-mindedness, that dogged insistence of his on giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt.

So that’s where the old man got it!

Dad was a forest ecologist for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his attitude extended to all of God’s creation. Mosquitos and yellowjackets. Wasps. Well, he asked me once, what would you do if somebody went messing around your nest? And snakes. What about copperheads and rattlers, I’d ask, I’m supposed to give them the benefit of the doubt? Why, yes, he’d say in so many words. They’re God’s creatures too, and they’re doing what God ordained them to do.

So should we all. This is most certainly true.

Citation. Luther’s Small Catechism: Published by the Board of Book Mission on the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Original Publication of the Small Catechism, 1529-1929, Lutheran Book Mission Booklet No. 36. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1929. 14.

[Begun March 3, and published — finally — Dec. 23, 2020]

One thought on “Canned fish at Christmas, the ‘most charitable construction’ and Luther’s catechism: Notes on a Norskie heritage

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