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Archive for August, 2018

By the Rev. Julie Luna

Sabbatical time is a chance for activities that we don’t normally make time for—such as meeting new people, sharing a meal, or gathering to talk about a current issue or concern.

The small groups that are formed through St. John’s are a great way to embrace this summer’s theme of “Companions in Transformation.” Each small group is different, but they commit to meeting regularly for fellowship, getting to know one another, and practicing our Christian faith through hospitality.

In our New Testament stories, we learn that Christ is present when two or three break bread, share stories, and gather in Christ’s name. The early church gathered in small groups in people’s homes to worship together. This is radical hospitality at its best: when we pull others into our journey and are transformed along the way.

In May, ten energetic young adults met at Sweeney’s for food and drink and to talk about forming a small group. They quickly jumped in with ideas for bowling, ice skating, movie nights, dinners out, and book discussions.  The enthusiasm was palpable and I witnessed it beyond that evening, when I saw young adults after the next Sunday service pulling in others to tell them about the upcoming gatherings.  The young adult group is planting the seeds of sabbatical rest that will bear the fruit of new friendships, and companionship with others along our journeys with Christ.

Small groups at St. John’s are a fabulous way to engage in sabbatical time all year long; to step out of our lives briefly to share hospitality with others. In addition to the new young adult group, there are plans underway for a young families group, a women’s group, and an LGBTQ group. The Young Families Small Group will have their first meeting after 10am worship on Sunday, August 19; all parents with small children (birth-elementary age) are welcome.

If you are interested or have any questions about small groups, please contact me at julie.luna@stjohnsstpaul.org.

Originally published in the July-August 2018 Evangelist.

 

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By the Rev. Barbara Mraz

Fort Snelling National Cemetery is beautiful and haunting, as is the story I am about to tell you. It is a story about a sailor and his St. John’s family who endured more pain than most of us can imagine. It is also about the angel that whispered in my ear at his funeral.

 

Ceremony

A sunny Friday in late May and all is lush and green at Fort Snelling. The white canopy for the brief service is in place when we arrive. Everything here is on a tight schedule since there are an average of 23 funerals a day.

The visual landscape is relentless and sobering: row after row of white markers, each one with its own story of loss. We are here to add another.

Today Christopher Plummer will be formally laid to rest, a beloved son, brother, husband and father, a child of this parish who had spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheeled bed in the sunroom of his parents’ home a block from the church, completely disabled from what happened to him in the US. Navy aboard the USS St. Louis in 1988. The Navy denied what happened for years.

There is white everywhere today, a marked contrast to the dark questions that hang in the air, questions about the reality of God’s love and the randomness of suffering. The box holding the cremains sits between two bouquets of summer flowers: white lilies and snapdragons. Christopher’s sister Elizabeth, herself in a wheelchair, holds a bouquet of white hydrangeas. Standing in place are a Navy Ensign and a Petty Officer, their uniforms sparkling. They wear white gloves and hats and are resplendent figures as they assist with the burial of a fallen brother.

It begins as a soldier plays “Taps” and I wonder how many thousands of times have these notes echoed across this hallowed landscape? How many silent tears have been discreetly wiped away, like my own that day?

The beautiful burial service is read out of the Prayer Book. It doesn’t disappoint today, with words poetic and hopeful.

The two Navy men salute and then painstakingly unfold a flag, snap it in place, and hold it for an instant unfurled in front of the cremains, then fold it again. It takes a long time and is almost painful in its well-rehearsed perfection. They present the tri-folded flag to Chris’s widow Mitsuko “on behalf of a grateful country.” She is standing next to their tall, handsome sons, George and Robert, both in medical school on their way to becoming doctors.

And then it is over. People from St. John’s mix with Plummer cousins and other relatives. As for me, I haven’t stopped crying since I drove into this place and continue as I drive away and think again of the Plummers and their endurance, and of the miles and miles of white markers—225,000 of them in this place where there are over five thousand funerals every year.

Christopher Plummer (left) and Bill Plummer.

The USS St. Louis

We can learn part of Christopher’s story from the history of St John’s entitled For All the Saints, written by James Frazier:

Christopher Plummer was injured in the run-up to the first Persian Gulf War. He was serving on the USS St. Louis in 1988 when it was caught in the flight path of Iraqi planes attacking Iranian targets. Exactly what happened to the crewmen on deck remained for some years a matter of contentious debate. The CIA knew the identities of those on the deck but long refused to acknowledge that their injuries were indeed the result of the Iraqi attacks. Chris himself was never sure what caused his injury but all signs now point to the likelihood that the men were sprayed with sarin gas, a chemical of mass destruction that causes permanent and rehabilitating neurological damage. The Veterans Administrations required evidence that Chris’s injuries were caused in the Persian Gulf in 1988 but eventually acknowledged the serious of his deteriorating condition awarding him back pay and financial support for his family.”

The account continues: “As if Christopher‘s tragedy was not enough for the Plummers, in 1994 – six years later – his only sibling, Elizabeth Plummer, suffered traumatic head injuries in a car accident on Summit Avenue and required a great deal of physical and occupational therapy.” She was hit by a car while she was attempting to cross the street.

Elizabeth, previously a biologist, subsequently became an amateur photographer and had her work displayed outside the Fireside Room at St. John’s. She continues to struggle with the results of her injuries and now resides at Serenity Homes in White Bear Lake. She is the only one of the family still living. Her mother Sona died in 2014 after a long illness, and her father Bill died suddenly in 2017. The large family home across Portland Avenue from St. John’s, at the end of the block, has recently been rehabbed and is up for sale.

 

And so….

Once I asked Bill Plummer, the father of Christopher and Elizabeth, how he kept going, fighting the government year after hear to get recompense for his son, and then helping to care for Elizabeth and Christopher and also his wife Sona who had a long illness before she died. He told me that getting the V.A. to finally provide financial support for Chris and his family was immensely satisfying.

He also told me this: “I only live in the past.” I was never quite sure what he meant by that but I know that he received comfort from his house full of collections and antiques, from memories of his children in their prime, and in helping them every way that he could. Sona was the same, fiercely committed to her children. She always carried a picture of Christopher in his Navy uniform and was proud to show it to people.

The church was important to Bill and Sona. Then-rector Dick Lampert was with the family after the tragedies occurred; they called him “a godsend.” While Bill and Sona came to church regularly, the Armenian church was also important to Sona. An Armenian priest preached at her funeral.

Then there are the cousins! An extended family has surrounded the Plummers and continues to care for Elizabeth. Members of St John’s also call on her. Occasionally she makes it to church, with help.

I miss Bill Plummer, his steadiness, his intelligence and wit, his amazing knowledge of history from the Greeks to the city of St. Paul. For me, this story is heartbreaking, but also reassuring, that in the worse of times and also in the best, endurance is real, persistence can be rewarded, and caring and faithful people are what make the love of God tangible.

 

“Be confident in your goodness”

Sometimes we lack the confidence to act, the self-assurance that we have what it takes to make a difference. So I was taken by the words I heard at the funeral service: “Be confident in your goodness.” The phrase struck me because I think it is often lack of confidence that holds us back from acts of compassion and even words of kindness. It does me.

When I called the Rev. Susan Moss, who presided at the funeral, and told her I couldn’t find those words in the Burial Liturgy (although I had written them down in my notebook), she said, “That’s because they’re not there, and I know I didn’t say them either. An angel must have whispered them in your ear.”

“Be confident in your goodness.” That confidence can change a lot.

Reference: For All the Saints by James E Frazier, Afton Press, 2014, p. 231.

 

Originally published in the July-August 2018 Evangelist. 

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