This I Believe: Rev. Dr. Alan Hagstrom (2020)

Underneath the Ordinary


The Second Music by Annie Lighthart from Poetry of Presence, An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, (Phyllis Cole-Dai & Ruby R. Wilson, Editors, Grayson Books, 2017, p. 36)

Now I understand there are two melodies playing, one below the other, one easier to hear, the other lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard, yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real, this one fades. Yet the notes of it touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.  If the truth of our lives is what it is playing, the telling is so soft that this mortal time, this irrevocable change, becomes beautiful.

I stop and stop again to hear the second music.  I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.  All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.


From Changing Light  by Nora Gallagher, Pantheon Books, New York, 2007,

p. 53-54:

Every person was a mystery; (he knew now, having been a priest for ten years).  Almost every person had a secret.  The secret was often tied up with each person’s destiny, not to be confused with a preordained destination.  No, it was more complex than that.  It was as if each of us had another, deeper life than the one being lived.  It lies underneath our ordinary days, our errands, the doing of dishes, the writing of letters, the making of money, like something moving, lobsterlike, under water.  Every now and then, this hidden life surfaces, as if to enact itself, to bring something to fulfillment.  Often, this happens when it intersects with another’s.

As the trees were budding and the flowers beginning to appear on the campus of the University of Chicago in early spring 1968, I walked with some anxiety across the campus green over to a pastoral care class meeting at the U of C Hospitals where Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross was interviewing patients who had been informed that they were dying.

I remember watching in a room behind a one-way glass as the interviews occurred, and remembering that just a few years before I had been at my grandmother’s bedside as she drew her last breath inside a huge oxygen tent.  That experience was my first in being present when a person died, especially powerful because Grandma Jackson was probably the person I felt closest to, then as a junior in high school but all through my growing up years.  While I sat beside her, I remember my internal response was to sing to myself the choral benediction I so often sang as part of the high school choir at my home church.  “The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord lift his countenance upon you, and give you peace…”. Then I went home and wrote and wrote and wrote about what it was like to lose this lovely, gentle, caring person in my life.  I still have that emotional journal.

As it turned out, that walk across campus, that bedside vigil, and a few other early life experiences, led to a major thread in my life, the search for meaning in the face of the realities of life and death.  Since that walk, as pastor and chaplain, I have sat by hundreds of bedsides and been blessed with the incredible beauty of the gratitude, intense love and surprising hope so often found in those times.

A little about my life story might be useful here.  I am the grandson of four emigrant grandparents from central Sweden who left for this country in order to escape poverty, lack of promising work, and an intrusive organized state religion.  They all settled in Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s, finding the work they sought and joining the large Swedish immigrant neighborhoods of the city and its suburbs.  I was lucky to have my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all within easy walking distance in west suburban Chicago, some only a few doors down on the same block, others only a few blocks further away.

Family life for me was all tied up with a mainstream Methodist Church where it seemed faith was easily reconciled with science and intelligent thinking.  That did not mean there were no forces of evil to contend with.  There were for sure, racial tensions in particular. And also, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-anybody else who’s different tensions.  “And also, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-anybody-else-who’s-different tensions.”  Looking back, I found myself a mixed bag on a lot of those.  Living four years at a liberal arts college in Northfield turned me around quite a bit.  So did the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  My Republican political background soon gave way to anything but that in politics and also challenged my fairly conservative beliefs in religion.  Finding a respect for a radical Jesus, I decided that I would try a year in seminary instead of going on to prepare for teaching.  So when Chicago Theological Seminary accepted me, I set my foot on a whole new territory that would stay with me the rest of my life.

The seminar on death and dying was a foretaste of forty years in ministry, half in small parishes as pastor, half in health care chaplaincy, the longest of which was seventeen years directing a community chaplaincy program in a variety of health care settings in Stillwater.  During those years I was truly excited to help start a hospice program, a community health care ethics advisory, grief support for adults and children, and a parish nurse program.  With the dying and their families, I was in my element, so to speak. That didn’t mean I became insulated from the power of emotion and excruciating pain of loss in such times . Far from it.  I was often caught up in that pain and in need of counsel myself.  But it has meant that I tend not to be afraid to face it with folks and join them in their journey.

Fourteen years ago, while serving my last pastoral charge, just across the river and up north a bit, in Osceola, Wisconsin, I was working part time with the Minnesota Center for Health Care Ethics leading workshops on preparing for a pandemic with church and community leaders.  We were trying to envision what we would do if a pandemic came to pass, how we would hold worship services, conduct funerals, visit our parishioners, stay safe, stay alive and help others to survive.  As I have gone into hiding now from the pandemic that actually came to pass, I have run across those papers and discovered that I am living through what we tried to imagine back in 2006.  Only this time round, everything has happened so fast that there was truly little time for preparation.

At the same time back in 2006 my brother David and I sat at the bedside of our mother as she breathed her last in the Osceola nursing home where she had lived for almost three years.  Knowing how much she loved music, being an accomplished pianist, we put on a CD of hymns and other songs.  As her breathing ceased, one of her favorites, “Amazing Grace,” began to play, celebrating the faith and life of this dear mother, friend and mentor.  Ironically, our very Swedish mother died on Syttende Mai, the Norwegian Independence Day.  So, happily, she got her independence from pain, from the restraints of her physical life, and added profoundly to the grace of what comes next.

The issues of the meaning of life and death seem to have come front and center all of a sudden, even in the short time between when I agreed to do this talk and now.  How things have changed!  And how powerfully present that second melody Annie Lighthart described and that mystery underneath the ordinary Nora Gallagher’s priest saw have become.

I believe that the second melody, the mystery underneath the ordinary has a lot to do with all that is sacred in our lives.  It has to do with the love we feel, the hope we embrace, the peace we find.  We find it here in the congregation as we care for one another, meet one another even at a distance, hold one another in our thoughts and prayers, and savor one another’s life expression close by or even far away

There is a beautiful melody going on in us individually and as a beloved community.  It is the mystery in which we can all find a place.  A place to cherish, to nurture, and most of all, to encourage that which is sacred as our primary focus.  And enjoy and celebrate all those wonderful ordinary things that surround us

I stop and stop again to hear that second music.  “Every now and then this hidden life surfaces, as if to enact itself, to bring something to fulfillment.”

And what is underneath the ordinary, beautiful life we live, even in the midst of all that is going on?  I believe we are pointed in that direction every time we gather for worship and go about our life as a congregation.

Love is the spirit of this church.  And service is its law.  This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

May peace dwell within our hearts, and understanding in our minds.

May courage steel our will, and love of truth forever guide us

So be it.  Go to it.  In gratitude and hope always.