Federated Perspectives, June 17, 2007

by Ted Larsen

I was born and raised in the State of Montana in a small town in which everyone knew everybody. Because it was a railroad transfer center, we had a variety of nationalities in a population that seemed well integrated. One of the churches in our town had burned beyond repair, so the congregation joined with those of another church where they pretty much read the Bible in the same way and quite often got the same message. Realizing the need for a name that would not favor one group over the other, they decided to call themselves “the Federated Church.”

So, when I joined the Navy fresh out of high school, I was given a small metal necklace bearing my name, and was told to provide certain information in the “unlikely” event of my death. “What’s your religion?” they wanted to know. “Federated,” I said. “Whatta ya mean Federated?” they asked. Well, that was the only name I knew for our church, so to move things along they stamped my dog tags with a large “P” for Protestant.

Shortly after World War II, I was serving on a ship that was part of a flotilla operating out of Key West. Mostly I got along well with crew members from other ships, but there was one particularly antagonistic guy who apparently considered people from Montana to be fair game for derisive comments. He was from a small state on the East Coast, a place he called New Joisey, or something similar, and he thought it was funny to extend the last three letters of my home state so they sounded like the bleating of sheep. It was through him I was introduced to a substantially different perspective on religion than that practiced by “Federated” folks, so we tended to argue.

On one occasion, our argument seemed to be going my way, and though I was trying to be nice about it, he suddenly stalked away shouting “Don’t do me any favors, Jesus.” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time and let it go at that, because I knew he wasn’t “Federated.” But it’s strange how a seemingly off-hand comment can embed itself in the mind and then be resurrected on special occasions—like on Easter, for example: a time for feeling good, hearing great music, an uplifting sermon, and listening closely to the text when it’s declared that Jesus died for our sins. But in the background, I often hear that voice from New Joisey: “Don’t do me any favors, Jesus.”

How do we come to believe in things as we grow up? In the Covenant faith, the answer seems to arise through the question “Where is it written?” But equally important should be whether or not that which is being and has been written is consistent with what we surely must know from our life experiences. In his book Finding God in the Questions, Dr. Timothy Johnson refers to his dedication as a “Follower of Jesus” explaining that “every day each of us makes decisions about how we will live from moment to moment—how we will treat people and what we will spend our time and money pursuing.” He suggests that most of the time we make these choices according to instinctive patterns developed over a period of time, and whether we realize it or not, these routine daily choices are based on our philosophy of life, on the “Way” we’ve chosen to follow but rarely discuss. We live without much thought, guided by role models such as parents, friends, celebrities, teachers, movies, music, things, and people that subconsciously influence our moral and intellectual choices.

As for himself, Tim Johnson says he has yet to find a “Way,” a philosophy, more compelling and challenging than the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. I find his views consistent with my own, based on a philosophy I was inspired to define in a poem using words that came to me during a walk through snow on a mountainside in Switzerland 35 years ago. I’ve used it to help govern my own life over the years. The poem has no title, but begins with words about experiencing Sounds:

There was

The sound of my feet as they crunched on the snow,
the glimmer of lights in the village below,
majestic high peaks of the mountains close by,
stars shining like diamonds against the clear sky,
And floating along like a magic balloon
in the vastness of space was a large Golden Moon.

I stopped, and the sound of my feet on the snow
was replaced by a Silence above and below
with sense of compulsion, I walked further on
and quick as it started, the Silence was gone.
As I walked through the night, all the world seemed to be
a Magnificent Jewel, prepared just for me!

Man hurries along from the day he is born
’till his mind and his body are tired and worn,
and the Sounds of his life in the days and the years—
his proof of existence—is all that he hears.
It isn’t his nature to think or to care
how things would be altered if he wasn’t there.

My mind was directed to thoughts such as these
when the sound of a bell echoed up through the trees
from the high-steepled church in the valley below,
and a new sense of BEING, pervaded my soul.
A different perspective, a new point of view
had altered the concept of life I once knew.

That night on the mountain lives on in my mind
though the things that it taught cannot all be defined,
but traveling through life, I’ve resolved that: Each day,
I will stop just to listen and see in what way
the world all around is affected by me
and if it’s how Jesus would want it to be.

Ted Larsen is an inventor and member of Bethlehem Covenant, Minneapolis.

See all articles by Ted Larsen