Tribute to Don Frisk

by Sarah Eix

While a number of Pietisten readers may have known Don Frisk as a pastor, teacher, and theologian, I knew him as Grandpa: the one who helped me make stuff in his wood shop, treated me to root beer at “Berghoffs,” and spent a spring break with me at Hagerman Lake, Mich. He delighted me with stories about his dad’s trips between Minneapolis and Seattle as a conductor for the Great Northern Railroad, about oversleeping for the “Julotta” Christmas morning service when he was pastor of his first church, and about falling in love with the organist there, my grandma Evie.

Many of you may remember him as dean of North Park Seminary in Chicago; I remember being allowed to “dress-up” in his academic regalia. You may remember him teaching systematic theology; I remember him teaching me to fish and to sail. You may have read Covenant Affirmations; I remember the study where he penned it as the place where we pretended to enter “Narnia” (imagine his big desk and a closet as long as the room under the eaves).

Somewhere on the journey I, too, recognized the breadth of Grandpa’s mind, the depth of his call to serve Christ, and the reach of his influence on me. He graciously received my clumsy questions and helped me think through big ideas like the atonement, the church as the body of Christ, and the Kingdom of God. This gracious, gentle man was the real deal, astoundingly consistent in both his vocational and personal life.

In recent weeks our family has been graced with stories of Grandpa’s influence within the Evangelical Covenant Church. As a pastor, he preached the gospel faithfully and cared for people generously. As a teacher, he brought cloud-scraping theology down to earth and engaged differing opinions with clarity and charity. And as an author, he gave voice to the core beliefs of the denomination in his book Covenant Affirmations, “no small feat in a non-creedal church” as current denominational president Gary Walter said at the memorial service.

There are a few, perhaps lesser-known, attributes of Grandpa worth mentioning. He was perpetually inquisitive, surprisingly adventurous, and eternally optimistic.

Even at 99, Grandpa never stopped learning. Besides reading new voices in theology, he was forever curious about science and technology. Each week he and four friends gathered for (mostly) theological discussions. They called themselves the Pentateuchs (or, for the Swedish audience, Penta-tokis—loosely “five crazies”). Grandpa often called my dad when it was his turn to choose the topic: “Peter, can you tell me how a CAT-scan works?” Or, “Peter, what can you tell me about cosmology and the creation of the universe?”

Grandpa was always up for an adventure. The “Tarzan Swing” on the island at Covenant Point Bible Camp was no match for him in his seventies. Nor was fly-fishing the Paint River with his grandkids when he was in his eighties. He never passed up a chance for some fun.

Grandpa was saturated with optimism. After losing his sight in his 90s to the point that he could no longer drive, he called my dad saying, “Peter, I’ve done something, and perhaps you won’t approve.” He then revealed that he’d purchased season tickets to the lyric opera. When reminded of the driving dilemma, Grandpa replied, “Oh, that’s OK. The Metra stop is just around the corner.”

Curious, adventurous, optimistic. And humble. Even as he anticipated his own funeral, Grandpa was clear to say that he wanted the service not to be about Don Frisk, but rather about Don’s Savior. He lived his life that way as well: pointing to Jesus, not himself. Gary Walter graciously offered these words at the service in September at North Park Covenant Church:

Many of you have heard me talk about how Jesus uses the word great ... in association with three different attributes: the characteristics of obedience, humility, and the servant heart. You put that all together and who is great in the eyes of Jesus? It’s the obedient, humble servant. If there was one in our midst who has stood tall as an obedient, humble servant it was Don Frisk.

There is sweet profundity in the fact that his five great-grandchildren affectionately dubbed him “Grandpa-great.”

Visiting with Grandpa just days before he died, I asked what words of wisdom he might give my husband Marc as he continues his journey as a pastor. Without any hesitation Grandpa answered: >>>

Be warm to the truth.

Be loyal to your people.

Be faithful to the heritage.

Be true to the gospel.

As we scrambled for a pen, he added with a smile, “Is that what you expected me to say?”

In a way, yes. That’s just what we expected.

This obedient, humble servant, whom we deeply loved, helped shape our lives, articulated theology that made sense, and embodied grace to the core; he was a great man, a great grandpa, and a grandpa-great. We will miss him very much. Peace be to his memory.

Sarah Eix is the granddaughter of Don Frisk, and resides in Manistee, MI.

Recognizing Don Frisk’s commitment to theological education, his enthusiasm for learning, and his interest in technology, a fitting memorial project has been initiated in his honor. Gifts sent to North Park Theological Seminary will help establish and support a digital library for online access to published, unpublished, and out-of-print writings central to the core of the literary canon of the Covenant. The Frisk Collection will be freely available and valuable to faculty and students at North Park University and other institutions; students in the program of Covenant Orientation; pastors and laity; research students and scholars.