It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone…
It was Saturday night, of course. About 7:30. There we were, at 336 Snug Harbor Road, seated around the breakfast room table, plates filled with flank steak, baked potatoes, and a green salad, gathered together as a family, my dad, my mom, me, and Garrison Keilor. It was a tradition, this Saturday night dinner together. There wasn’t much that went on in our family that was not a tradition, but that’s beside the point. With apologies to the ministers in the room, the sermons on Saturday nights, my dad often said, were often as poignant as those on Sunday mornings.
The thing about Lake Woebegone is, it never really was a quiet week…there was always something going on, whether it be the ‘exiles’ (those who had left Lake Woebegone) returning home at Christmas, a dry stewardship sermon by pastor Ingqvist that inspires a dramatic repentance, or the fourteen year old girl who, just before her confirmation at Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church, decides she may have lost her faith. But these are not the type of things one would notice, speeding past on the Interstate. No, these are the type of stories that only unfold if you travel the Blue Highways, the back roads that go through the small, forgotten towns, the Lake Woebegones…
This story from the Bible is so simple, you might almost be tempted to skip right over it, to get to what’s next, to get to the good part, to get to where the real action is…but Jesus was not in such a hurry to get to where he was going that he wasn’t able to stop along the way.
Pat Dunigan, my dad, liked to travel the Blue Highways…that, of course, is how I know about them. Left to my own devices I have a tendency to take the quickest route, a straight line, the shortest distance between two points. But not my dad. Though as an engineer he could calculate the shortest distance from point A to point B, he chose, instead, to meander, sure that there was as much to be enjoyed in the journey as in the final destination. Not that this meandering was aimless—oh no, these meanderings were thoroughly planned out beforehand, many months beforehand, on intricately detailed spreadsheet itineraries.
Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.
Now if you’ll remember, it was Martha who invited Jesus to her home. But upon inviting him in, she quickly went about her business, attending to the many things on her to do list. She had to get dinner ready, didn’t she? She was doing all this for him, by the way. Somebody had to get things done around here…
It was a Saturday night, this time many years later. It was Saturday September 4, 2004, to be exact. Based on my request, we were to have flank steak for dinner, with corn on the cob this time, since it was summer, and of course, the requisite green salad. The address had changed, and this table was out on the patio, instead of inside that breakfast room. The radio had to be brought from inside, and plugged in out on the patio. But we were to gather, in the tradition of Saturday nights, eat dinner together and listen to the News from Lake Woebegone. It had been a busy evening—I had gone for a run, and then was trying to organize the garage so that all that needed to could fit into it. Almost by accident I wandered out on to the patio where my dad was sitting, in his wheelchair now, enjoying the waning evening, and just then I heard Garrison Keilor’s opening words…It was a quiet week in Lake Woebegone… I called to my mom, who came out and joined us, and thought to myself, I almost missed it.
DWIND is what he called it. Dad’s work is never done. It was always said in a sort of mock seriousness, as, truth be told, he loved to be involved in his many projects. In fact, I can’t remember a time when he was not involved in some sort of a project.
They were varied in nature, from the remodeling of our old house on Snug Harbor, to the building of a wooden kayak, needle pointing beautifully intricate Christmas stockings for Jack, Alison, and Tommy Hanle, baking bread with Carol Kerr, putting in a new stairway with my grandpa and uncle Fritz at the cottage on Lake Otsego, and ‘rushing’ the seats on the rocking chairs there this summer, when he was no longer able to walk down the stairway that he had helped to build. More recently he and I were in the garage together, working on the latest project, cherry wood salad serving utensils, which he had been intending to make for my mom and me.
In his last days during one conversation I asked him about knowing that he didn’t have much time left—how did he feel about that? His response? Dunigan through and through… “I just wish that I had gotten a chance to finish the front patio.” Now, if the truth be known, that wish was based on the desire, I am sure, to finish the work that he had started and to leave it nice for my mom, but it was also based on the firm belief that if it was to be done right, he would need to do it himself!
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
Often this story from the Bible is told as one in which Martha did something and Mary did nothing. But don’t be misled…the distinction between Martha and Mary is not one between doing something and doing nothing. For that would be the same fallacy that would lead us to believe that it really was a quiet week in Lake Woebegone. The distinction here is not one between activity and inactivity, but rather a distinction between living a life that is distracted and living a life that pays attention.
It was a Thursday night this time. It was Thursday September 9, 2004, to be exact. After a rather pain-filled day and with some difficulty my mom and I got my dad out of bed, into his wheelchair and out onto the patio for dinner. This time it was a pesto pasta, as flank steak is Saturday night food. After dinner, and what had become a nightly tradition of dessert, my dad seemed quite tired so we asked him if he was ready to go to bed. “No,” he said, “just a little while longer. I want to keep enjoying it while I am enjoying it.”
It was this desire, this drive really, to enjoy life a while longer that carried my dad throughout his life and most especially through the past two and a half years. In that time his desire to live life took him on trips to Princeton for my graduation, Port Townsend to the Wooden Boat Festival, Cleveland Ohio for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, Lake Otsego to spend time with family, and even across the pond to Scotland where he fell in love with the small town of St. Andrews but more importantly, the sticky toffee pudding at the Russell Hotel!
Especially in the last weeks, his time was spent simply “being with”—whether it be working with Jack McClarty to build wooden wheel chair ramps for getting in and out of the house, breakfast with the Webbs at Wilma’s on Balboa Island, nightly martinis and game of rummy on the patio with my mom, or teaching me how to bake bread…I am sure it was all included on the spreadsheet itinerary of his life, attempting to enjoy as much of the journey as possible, before arriving at the final destination.
In the days before he passed away I asked my dad if he was afraid to die. I am not sure what I expected in asking that question, but I can tell you that his answer both startled me and yet struck me, for it was so him. Without hesitating he said, “No, I am not afraid to die. I never have been. I know where I am going and I know that it is a better place. I have always known.” And there he paused for a moment. “I’ve never needed toe crossings or altar calls or to put my hands up in the air when I sing songs in church. Some people do that, and that’s okay. But I don’t need that. It’s not for me. I just know, and I have always known.”
This is the life that God offers to us all, calling us to enjoy the journey along the way, and then welcoming us home when we reach the final destination.
And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
**This is the sermon I preached at my dad’s memorial service almost 9 year ago – thank you, Dad.