"2 : something of special value handed on from one generation to another " – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

My great cloud of witnesses

on May 11, 2013

As I reflect on my life, many people have had an impact on my faith formation. They are my great cloud of witnesses. And while I cannot begin to detail all of those witnesses, a few highlights from my youth are included here:

My parents, obviously, who made sure we were in church every Sunday, in confirmation classes every Saturday: they graciously hosted large youth fellowship events regularly in our home on Sunday nights and sought out the closest Lutheran church to attend whenever we were on vacation, no matter where we were at that time, so we could carry back our bulletins and report our attendance for confirmation credit and attendance pins awarded each year. I remember that my mom was my Sunday School teacher for many years and she, along with my grandma, were the altar guild. We would go to the church on Saturdays to ready the altar for Sunday, prepare the communion trays, change the numbers on the hymn boards. My senses still recall the fruity aroma of the Mogen David wine as we poured it into the communion cup filler, the wheezing of the bulb on the cup filler as we would carefully pump the wine into the tiny glass cups, gently handling the delicate bread wafers, the beautifully organized numbers and headings for the hymn board in the sacristy cupboard, and the washing and drying of the cups on Sunday after church- I loved these rituals as much as I loved the reason for the rituals. They centered me. This was home for my soul.

My pastors- Pastor Hollingsworth, Pastor Rendleman, and Pastor Kerrick:

Pastor Hollingsworth presided at my wedding and insisted that we come to him for premarital counseling before the wedding. Truly the best investment in our marriage was the 4 or 5 hours we spent with Pastor Hollingsworth in his office at Trinity, getting down the the real business of the wedding details: not the flowers or the dress or the cake but the nitty, gritty of solid marriages: communication.

Pastor Rendleman was my confirmation pastor. I remember him as kind and loving, despite the fact that his departure from our church was less than ideal. Divorcing his wife and marrying another woman in our congregation, I remember observing that despite how he left our congregation, he was still loved and forgiven by the congregation. This forgiveness spoke volumes to me about the grace that is so central to my Lutheran identity.

Mom's and Dad's Wedding, Pastor Kerrick presiding. Aunt Nancy (matron of honor) and Uncle Larry (best man), Rodney (acolyte), Terri (flower girl), and me (ring bearer).

Mom’s and Dad’s Wedding, Pastor Kerrick presiding. Aunt Nancy (matron of honor) and Uncle Larry (best man), Rodney (acolyte), Terri (flower girl), and me (ring bearer).

Pastor Kerrick was my childhood pastor. In my innocence and naiveté, I thought that he was Jesus. I remember going up to the communion rail and that he would kneel down and look me in the eye and tell me that Jesus loved me. I remember that when I was 5 years old, Pastor Kerrick baptized mom’s fiancé and, soon after, presided at my mom’s wedding to my new dad. I remember that shortly after that, I was stunned to hear him read his letter of resignation from the lectern. I could hear the shocked and disappointed murmuring of the congregants seated behind us. I remember that later in the service, I laid my head on my mom’s lap and I began to cry. Mom led me out of church and into the women’s bathroom. We sat on the sofa there and she asked me why I was crying and I remember thinking, “If you don’t know that Jesus is leaving our church, I am not going to be the one to tell you!”

Coach Jim Ridenour, my middle school science teacher, who invited me to help start a middle school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when I was in 6th grade:

When I failed to make the cheerleading squad in 8th grade and the humiliation over the school announcements led me crying hopelessly into the girls’ bathroom, Mr. Ridenour sought me out, found me and reminded me that I was much more than a fallen cheerleader, cut from the squad: “You are a child of God and nothing is more important than that.” 

I spent 6 years of my youth committed to participating and leading FCA activities with Mr. Ridenour and the other adult sponsors and members of FCA, from Bible studies to Ridiculous, Idiotic, Outrageous Times (aka RIOTs!), to bus trips to Florida and back. The many hours we spent together in these events were always devoted to strengthening my confidence to stand true to my faith when confronted with peer pressure and tough choices. When Mr. Ridenour died just before Christmas of 1997, I felt I had lost a faith father. He was a great man of infinite love and compassion for the countless youth he coached and taught for decades in Logansport. His impact on all of those lives may never be fully realized.

Grandpa Conn was always in church on Sunday mornings, seated at the far end of the third pew from the front on the left side. When I was very young, he would let me have all of the pennies from his coin purse to drop into the wooden offering plates as they were passed down the aisle. In later years, grandpa began doling out dumdums to all of the children in church. After I had outgrown the pennies and the dumdums, grandpa’s presence in church was noted each week by the barely perceptible snip and click of his pocket nail clippers during the sermon. Occasionally, he would doze off and grandma would elbow his ribs. At some point in high school, I began to think that grandpa really only came to church because there would be hell to pay with grandma if he didn’t come to church. But I was wrong about that.
After grandpa lost his eyesight to macular degeneration and doctors and specialists could do nothing to save his eyesight, it was decided that we should gather as a family and pray around grandpa to have his sight restored. Now, we can argue and debate the theology of faith-healing all day, but what I do know for certain is this: as a lifelong Lutheran, we prayed for folks all the time but I had never attended to a faith healing prayer meeting. This just wasn’t a part of my Lutheran church culture. So I was, admittedly, a little uncomfortable in this scenario. If it didn’t work, would it be my fault? Was my faith too shallow? I did not want to bear the burden of failure to heal my grandpa. But in that prayer circle that day, for the first time in my life, I heard my grandpa’s faith expressed in words so plain, yet so sincere, “Lord, I don’t know why this has happened to me. I just pray that You give me the strength to deal with it.” I knew then that he wasn’t just sitting at the end of that pew to keep the peace with grandma, that his faith ran deeper than spare change and lollipops.

And finally there is grandma, with whom, perhaps, my faith journey truly begins: grandma who, at the age of 11, decided one day to go church shopping.


Grandpa, Grandma, Aunt Nancy, Uncle Dave, and Grandma Maddie Brandt, 1959.

She had been raised in a loving home but not a church-going one. So for whatever reason, at 11 years old, grandma felt compelled to go find herself a church home. She told me that she visited many of the local churches.  St. Luke’s Lutheran Church felt right and the Lutheran theology was one that resonated the most with her own personal beliefs. She met with the pastor and attended new member lessons. The pastor met with great-grandma Herron for assurance that grandma’s very determined actions as a girl of such young years were supported or, at least, acceptable with her parents. Grandma deeply loved her choice and her church. She brought grandpa into her church, as well as her mother, brothers and sisters. She raised all of her children in the church and was delighted to know that they all continued in their faith journeys after leaving home and marrying. She could debate theology with the best of us, and often did, around her kitchen table but she was accepting of other expressions of faith, of Aunt Nancy’s conversion to Catholicism when she married Uncle Dave, at a time when conversions were not taken lightly, even before our country had mustered enough religious tolerance to elect a Catholic president. It grieved her if ever she thought that a member of her family turned away from the church and she would rejoice in the return of a prodigal.

Grandma's Lutheran Book of Prayer

Grandma’s Lutheran Book of Prayer

Grandma loved her church and for more than 70 years, she sat in the third pew from the front on the left side. Countless are the communion cups she filled, washed and dried, the potlucks she attended or organized, the many lives she touched through a decision she made when she was just 11 years old.

The summer before grandma died, I felt an ache in my chest when I came home for a visit, sat in that family pew without grandma there and heard her name lifted up as one of the sick and homebound in the prayers of the people. It took a lot to keep grandma home on a Sunday morning but she was just worn out that day. This is still our family pew and my parents continue to stake out that claim every Sunday.

After grandma died, I found among her things, her Lutheran Book of Prayer. I’ll treasure it always for what it is and for what it represents, a decision by a young girl to follow, love and live in the light of Christ.


4 responses to “My great cloud of witnesses

  1. Cathy Schaefer says:

    Beautiful and very touching memories – brought tears to my eyes!

    • pattyo1984 says:

      Thanks, Cathy~ I thought everyone knew about grandma’s church shopping. I don’t actually remember when she first told me that story, but it feels like I have known this all of my life. Maybe it was just absorbed as a part of my upbringing while sitting next to her in that same pew year after year. I’m glad to have shared that story with you~

  2. Beth says:

    I love this entry. The only time the public hears about people of a church is, usually, when they have done something horribly wrong. It is really nice to remember how many ordinary, loving people go about their business on a daily basis, being faithful, spreading love and keeping churches real.

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