Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

April 29, 2015

Tom Krueger was standing at the church lectern, wearing golfing duds and carrying a nine-iron.  He looked, and apparently felt, a bit sheepish.  But, as usual, he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye too.  “I’m dressed today,” he said, “the way I usually dress on Sunday mornings.  You’re probably wondering why I, of all people, should be standing here on Stewardship Sunday, encouraging you folks to increase your commitment of ‘time, talents and treasures’ to this church, when my own commitment isn’t what it should be.  I’m wondering that, too.”  We all knew Tom, and we all howled with laughter.  But the pledges that came in on that autumn day in 1983 more than covered the budget for 1984.

That is my first distinct memory of Tom, but I had met him some fifteen months earlier, when my wife Marilyn was appointed the pastor of the Trinity-Pilgrim United Methodist Church in Brookfield, WI.  Tom’s family belonged to that church, and Tom’s wife, Dorothy, was one of its pillars.  She and Marilyn quickly became good friends, and through Marilyn’s gentle, persistent efforts, Tom gradually became more and more active in the life of the congregation.  Belonging to the Stewardship Committee was his big first step, but pretty soon he decided to join the Choir.  And although his passion for golfing was undimmed, he switched his Sunday tee time from mornings to afternoons.  He, too, became a pillar of the church.

1984 was an eventful year for us.  Trinity-Pilgrim was thriving under Marilyn’s leadership.  Many new members were joining and talk was afoot about adding a substantial addition to the church building.  Dorothy was the lay leader that year, and Tom, a distinguished Milwaukee business man, was supervising the church’s finances.  I completed coursework for my doctorate at Marquette University, and passed my qualifying exams in late October.  Best of all, Marilyn was pregnant with our first child, who was due just before Christmas.

At 4:00 AM on December 23, Marilyn went into labor.  It was a Sunday morning, and the sermon that Marilyn had prepared was the most explicitly “maternal” she had ever written – a lovely meditation on her new sense of solidarity with Mary of Nazareth.  But now she knew she would be delivering a baby, not a sermon, that day.  So she called Dorothy and asked her to read her sermon that morning.  Dorothy eagerly agreed.  Marilyn and I then clambered into the car to go to the hospital, but stopped first at the church, where Marilyn laid her manuscript on the pulpit, along with a hastily composed note to the congregation.  Our first child, Sarah, was born later that morning.  I stayed with Marilyn and Sarah most of the day, but late that afternoon I headed home.  I stopped first at the Kruegers’, who fed me supper, pumped me for details about the new baby, and gleefully explained how exciting church had been that day “without us.”

During Marilyn’s maternity leave, I stepped in as interim pastor, and when Marilyn was ready to return to work in April 1985, we were appointed co-pastors – splitting the work, splitting the salary, and trying not to split the church, as we liked to say.

In February 1988, Marilyn and I were blessed with the birth of our second child, Jonathan.  Once again I soloed at the church while Marilyn took maternity leave.  Dorothy often babysat for Sarah during those years, and in due course, for Jonathan too.  In 1990, Marilyn got pregnant for the third time.  The baby was due in February 1991.  Again we planned for me to serve as full-time pastor during Marilyn’s recuperation, and again we were counting on Dorothy – by now our older children’s surrogate grandma – to help out with child care.

Two months before the baby’s due date – on Christmas Eve to be exact – Tom showed up for church looking peaked and sallow.  Everyone expressed concern, but he brushed off our anxiety with that impish grin of his.  “Too much bourbon in the eggnog,” he insisted.

Alas, it wasn’t the eggnog that had yellowed his skin.  It was pancreatic cancer, and it was progressing rapidly.

Marilyn and I visited him in the hospital almost daily.  Dorothy or one of their three children was always by his side.  Two days before Tom’s death, when I arrived, Dorothy asked me to offer a prayer.  I sat on one side of Tom’s bed and Dorothy on the other.  We all held hands.  I started to pray, when suddenly there was a knock at the door.  “Come in,” said Tom.  A well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman peered in.  It was George, the Kruegers’ stock broker.  Under normal circumstances, George would have been the very model of a busy, successful business man.  But today he was clearly grief-stricken over his old friend’s impending death and embarrassed to be interrupting what must have looked to him like the administration of last rites.  Perhaps he was also suddenly confronted with the specter of his own mortality, as often happens to us when one of our close friends is dying.  It was an awkward moment.

It was Tom who came to our rescue.  “George!” he exclaimed.  “Welcome to the party!  Wow, that’s a natty necktie you’re wearing today.”

It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard – and brave precisely because it was so disarming.  About to be cut down in the prime of a very active and productive life, Tom was nevertheless fully aware of the needs and feelings of those around him, and couldn’t bear to be the cause of another’s discomfort.  His joke broke the ice.  We all burst into laughter at the magnificent absurdity of the remark, and simultaneously burst into tears at the fact that a dying man could find it within himself to comfort his mourners with witticisms.  Nor was he just indulging in a bit of gallows humor.  This was the joyful self-possession of one whose faith had conquered fear and sorrow.  “O death, where is thy victory?  O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Cor. 15:55).

Tom’s funeral was held in the cathedral-like chapel of a local cemetery, our church sanctuary being too small for the huge crowd that was expected.  Friends and family paid him tribute.  The church choir sang, and sang beautifully, although the tenor section was one voice short.  Marilyn, now nine months pregnant, preached a brilliant eulogy.  The committal service was scheduled for the next day.  That morning, Marilyn went into labor.  We hastily arranged for Tom’s brother, himself an ordained minister, to conduct the committal service, loaned him our worship book, and drove off to the hospital.  The graveside liturgy opens with the words, “In the midst of life, we are in death….”[1]  Yes, but in the midst of death, we are in life.  Mollie was born later that day.

Marilyn and I still exchange Christmas cards each year with Dorothy.

[1] “A Service of Death and Resurrection,” in The Book of Services (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1985), p. 88.

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