December 20, 2005

Prairie Pilgrimage

1550 page31 caprandmother Gackenheimer died in her sleep on a Wednesday morning in the Sunshine State. Far to the north on Interstate 90, I was driving west across the country through cold, wind, and rain. On that very day I had planned to visit the old Bengtson homestead in South Dakota where she grew up. I had not been enthusiastic about leaving the highway to hunt for an abandoned homestead marked on a section map. But Grandma and I were close, and when I learned of her unexpected death that morning, the journey into the prairie became a kind of pilgrimage.

 It was a wild and beautiful spot. Dark clouds hung low over the approaching dusk, and a relentless wind buffeted the prairie. The old white farmhouse and several barns stood empty in a cluster of gnarled trees. Beyond the trees, fields stretched endlessly to the horizon. Barn doors were opening and slamming shut in the gale, as if someone were about. The windmill moaned as it turned into the switching winds. Young Bernice knew this place well. I could almost see the family going about the evening chores in the gathering darkness. It was so strange to stand there on the day Grandma went to sleep.

1550 page31I went to the homestead to honor my grandmother. I wanted to see the windswept cluster of trees and buildings, the old school site, and the Lutheran church--the places in which her character was formed. As an adult, I have become curious about her character, because it was so unusual: a mixture of strength and humility, of restraint and generosity. Grandma had strong convictions about doctrinal truth, but I never heard her pass judgment on another person. She was conservative in lifestyle, but loving and tolerant toward those who behaved differently. She held firm values, but did not impose them on others. She lived simply, but gave generously. She was deeply devout, but did not trivialize her faith by making a show of it.

These are rare characteristics indeed; it is natural to want to impose our own journey on others. If we have strong convictions, we want to police the beliefs of others. If we are a bit fuzzy on doctrinal matters, we can allow latitude for others. If we work hard to live right, we feel a compulsion to criticize the lifestyles of others. If we are more relaxed in personal standards, it is easy to be tolerant. If we hold cherished values, we want to judge others for not holding them. But if our values remain unformed, we are less likely to be judgmental.

What I am trying to say is that it is difficult to live according to high personal standards while taking a generous attitude toward others. This is because we are insecure, and afraid of walking alone. We want to make sure we have like-minded company to comfort us, and make us feel good about ourselves. But the high road of personal piety and liberal generosity, though lonely and difficult, is neither contradictory nor impossible. It is Christian. In the way of Jesus, values and tolerance meet and kiss each other.

Grandma was strong and secure--strong and secure enough to be humble and gracious, to feel no need of being harsh or critical, to have no desire to put others down in order to build herself up. I had the great privilege of being around her for most of my 40 years. When I looked at her, I saw Jesus. I am immensely grateful for her influence, both in my life, and in our world--and I wish I could be even a little bit like her.


Shandelle Marie Henson is the granddaughter of Bernice Marie Gackenheimer. Bernice and her husband, Ernest, spent their lives serving the Seventh-day Adventist Church in pastoral, conference, union, and division capacities. They worked in the United States, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, England, Trinidad, and Barbados. Bernice died May 11, 2005, at the age of 96. Her beloved Ernie died June 4, 1989.