Going To Minnesota In My Mind.

On Sunday August 7, Bill Hay gave his last sermon as the Senior Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian, the church he founded in 1978. Bill has been my pastor since our family joined his first church, Edgewood Presbyterian, in 1972.

With the possible exception of my Snotty-Teen years (much of which I have happily erased from my internal hard drive), I honestly don’t believe I ever heard Bill give a sermon that left me thinking, “Well, that could have been better.”

Earlier this year, Garrison Keillor announced that, in the spring of 2013, he would retire from the weekly variety radio program (“The Prairie Home Companion”) he founded in 1974. A show which I first heard in 1983—and of which I’ve been a regular listener (except during Keillor’s self-imposed hiatus, from 1987 to 1992) ever since.

Applying simple mathematics, I would conservatively estimate that I’ve spent at least 1200 hours of my life listening to “The Prairie Home Companion”. Which means I’ve spent more time with Garrison Keillor than any other writer, entertainer or musician who ever lived.

What’s particularly interesting here is that these two men—who have played such pivotal roles in my life (spiritual and cultural)—were both born and raised in Minnesota. Lately, I’ve done a lot of thinking about that coincidence; wondering if there is a core commonality between the two that’s somehow related to being Minnesotan. I think there is.

In case you’ve never heard “A Prairie Home Companion” (and please fix that, by tuning into 90.3 FM every Saturday at 5:00), the show revolves loosely around Garrison’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

It’s a town of about 800; where the public monument is The Statue Of The Unknown Norwegian—so known because the model left before the sculptor could get his name; and where just about everyone is either a member of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church or its Catholic cousin, Our Lady Of Perpetual Responsibility.

Lake Wobegonians are, if nothing else, the same kind of humble, self-effacing people Garrison grew-up around. Somewhat fatalistic in nature, they tend to mistrust good times—believing, as Garrison has noted (with equal parts affection and irony), that “if you should ever feel really happy, be patient. This will pass.”

I spoke with Garrison in preparing this column, and wasn’t remotely surprised to find him the same kind, thoughtful man I hear nearly every Saturday on the radio. When I asked him why he never identifies himself by name on his own show, he said, “People may think of it as humility, but it’s really a peculiar form of arrogance. I think people identify themselves too much on the radio.”

Which points to a key component of the core commonality Garrison Keillor shares with Bill Hay. Simply stated, Bill’s life’s work has been to focus attention not on himself, but on the Lord and Savior he has served, and continues to serve, so faithfully. He’s been known to say that one of his principle agendas in life is to take as many people with him to Heaven as possible. And he sincerely believes that, while his church’s first 33 years have been wonderful, the next 33 will be even better.

If I had to describe that core commonality in a single word, it’s meekness: The kind of self-control that is the opposite of self-will, self-interest, and self-assertiveness. It’s a quality which all too rarely finds its way into my own personality. Sadder still, it’s one which has largely disappeared from public discourse.

That said, I’m not talking about the wimpy kind of meekness our culture equates with weakness. If there is one quality Bill Hay personifies—through words, actions and manner—it’s God’s gentle, forgiving love. But I still remember, years ago, Bill mentioning (not by name, of course) a man he’d once known, who was in a relationship outside his marriage—and had no intention of breaking it off. The man said to him, “Well you know, Bill: God’s gonna forgive me.” To which Bill replied, “No. God’s gonna get you.” It wasn’t what the man wanted to hear, but it’s what he needed to hear—because you can’t expect forgiveness if you’re not sorry.

That’s one of the great lessons of meekness: Hard truths can be delivered without a hard edge. And at a time when our city, and our country, are facing a lot of hard truths, I’m thinking we could all use a lot more Minnesota in our daily discourse.

This column was originally published in the September, 2011 issue of B-Metro Magazine


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