Sunday, December 20, 2009

2009 Christmas News from Norman and Candy

Dear Friends,

Every year we get several notes indicating people look forward to receiving the Stolpe Star. I know the “rules” about not sending tacky brag-sheets, but I also know that the Christmas letters are often the way we keep some sense of being up to date with our friends. One of the joys of having served in so many places (Illinois, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Texas, not to mention our beginnings in Minnesota and California) is having so many treasured friends. Unfortunately, this translates into a mailing list that might rival some magazines, making the production and mailing prohibitive. While we don’t consider ourselves elderly yet, we definitely are aware of our aging. We are opting for simple more and more and are finding that even simple takes not only more time than it used to, but more time than we forecast. So with that apology, you are getting the annual news from Norm and Candy in this format.

Merry Christmas

This year I have been conscious of cultivating spiritual acuity, recognizing Christ’s present involvement in our daily journey. Plenty of what we read and hear about every day on a national and global scale can produce joy-stealing anxiety: economy, wars and terror, health care, climate change. Like most of you, we have had our share of family and church issues to face in 2009. This is life. But Christmas reminds us that in Jesus, God invaded our life to transform us. Many times this year, I have drawn strength from these words in Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” This is not a denial of reality but perceiving a greater reality that daily circumstances can obscure. As we are discovering it for ourselves, we also wish for you the spiritual vision and power to rejoice in the Lord and exult in the God of our salvation as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Erik Graduates
The major milestone for our family in 2009 was that Erik graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in sociology and minor in music. We admire his persistence in continuing to pursue this goal through several set backs and struggles. Candy’s Dad came down from Minnesota for the occasion, and Jon came with Isaac from Pennsylvania.

He has been working at a Pei Wei (pan-Asian) restaurant for some time, and that position is developing into a suitable first job after graduation. National unemployment being what it is, we are thankful he has a job he enjoys and excels at.

Erik continues with The Raven Charter, the band with four of his friends based in Denton. They recently produced a music video and have been making their presence felt in the local music scene. Both of his brothers are quite enthusiastic, and they are better judges of this than we are.

Like his brothers before him, Erik is living at home with us post-graduation. Relationship, communication and schedule have been pretty good. Having all of his stuff (boxes and more) does put a strain on our basement-less Texas house. He also has his two dogs, Tess and Isis, with us. Most of the time, they get along with our Amber, who is also aging. But they are high energy, especially early in the day and neither Amber nor we can keep up consistently.

Extended Family Limits

We have not been with Leanne and Jon, Hannah and Isaac since June 2008 for Elizabeth’s dedication in Wisconsin. But Jon and Isaac did visit for a couple of days at Erik’s graduation. However, we did have a wonderful time with Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth at Easter 2009 when they visited us here in Texas. We loved showing off our grandchildren to the people of Central Christian Church! Some of them were a significant help to Rachel and David when the adopted Elizabeth, and this visit gave a chance to thank these folk and for them to meet the little girl they helped bring into our family.

In August Candy and I represented our congregation at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis. With a little help, that got us close enough to make a quick run a little farther north to visit my Mom and sister Elaine and Max in Illinois and a few days with Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth in Wisconsin.

I took the first of two courses toward certification as a transitional or interim pastor in 2009 and plan to take the second course in the fall of 2010 in Devon, Pennsylvania. We’ll wrap that in some vacation time and spend it with Leanne and Jon, Hannah and Isaac. The site is about a half hour from their house.

Last Christmas both of our distant children gave us web-cams for the computer. With that hardware and Skype software, we are able to have tele-video conversations with them, which we do almost every week. It’s not as good as a visit, but a lot better than telephone. Besides the visual immediacy, we do get to watch the grandchildren grow.

Flash on Sons

Jon is a manager in the Building Automation division of Siemens. He has been raising chickens for eggs. Leanne is director of the weekday preschool for their congregation, Christ Church of the Valley. Hannah is in middle school (by next year, we’ll have a teenage grandchild) and plays violin. Isaac is in Cub Scouts, plays basketball and piano and trumpet.

David is a supervisor (vice-principal) at St. Charles (an alternative school). If all goes well he will get his Principal’s License through Marquette University in May. Rachel continues to nanny at night. Sam won some prizes for his rice-crispy-treat sculpture and trail mix in the children’s food competition at the Wisconsin State Fair. Elizabeth (Bitsy) loves pink, princesses, horses and pandas (so much for gender neutral parenting).

Church Challenges

Having served as pastor of Central Christian Church for 9½ years, we’ve been through plenty of congregational peaks and valleys as well as personal joys and tragedies. Thanks to a lot of the ministry of Todd Boddy, Associate Pastor for Mission and Outreach, we have seen a number of people coming not just into our congregation but into a transforming relationship with Jesus in the last year plus. Nevertheless, this urban congregation nearly a century and a half old is facing a lot of challenges making the transition into the 21st century, including finances and the passing of a generation.

Technology is an interesting part of coming into the 21st century. While most Sundays fewer than 100 people are in worship, 800+ people are listening to my worship messages via the internet and i-tunes. Over 150 people a week listen to the dialog Bible study Todd Boddy does every Wednesday with John Cunyus, Minister at Large. You can find out what a “Minister-at-Large” is at

Conversation and prayer about pastoral transition for Central Christian Church has begun, recognizing that I will be 65 in a couple of years. Both the congregation and the Stolpes need a lot of prayerful discernment of God’s leading for good transition for both. While I might “retire” from this congregation, I am not planning to really retire. I think I still have a lot to give the Church, not to mention that we’re going to need several years more income to pay everything we incurred with educating our sons. That is the purpose of getting certified as a transitional – interim pastor. I might also pursue spiritual formation, pastoral care and writing in some fashion.
This is not just a matter of making the right career decisions, but we see it as a transition to a new phase of life. One thing I admired about my parents is how they seemed to be able to embrace whatever life brought next with enthusiasm and faith. “What does God have for us now?” was their attitude. They never seemed to expend energy on longing for (or regretting) the way things used to be. I aspire to make this transition as an adventure with similar excitement.

Peace to all,
Norm (for Candy, too)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Erik Graduates from the University of North Texas

Other things have occupied me, and I have not posted to this blog for quite a while. A variety of things prompted me to post several items on the Pilgrim Path page, which got me to look at the ChristLink home page. I realized that we had some great family news that I had not posted.

Erik graduated from the University of North Texas in May, 2009: major sociology, minor music. For the occasion Grandpa Miller came in from Minnesota and Erik’s brother Jon and his son Isaac from Pennsylvania. Not quite a family reunion and not very long, but a good celebration together.

Erik is working at a Pei Wei restaurant and progressing to a more sustaining job (even if not his ultimate career). He is living with us, along with his two dogs, Tess and Isis. His band – The Raven Charter – continues to develop and recently released a video which can be seen and heard at

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Generational Joy

Rachel and David with Sam and Elizabeth visited us for a week over the Easter weekend. We ate steak and took in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in Ft. Worth. We enjoyed the Dallas Zoo. Of course, we showed off our grandchildren at church on Easter Sunday. The casual times may have been the best of all. Sam got introduced to “Stolpegories” (Rachel and David’s addition to the Scatergories game), and Sam won decisively at Monopoly. In good Stolpe fashion, we played a few rounds of backyard croquet. That took me back to when my Dad was the grandpa and our boys (and their cousins) were the grandchildren. After my Dad’s funeral in 2007, I wrote in my journal.

“My Dad had loved to play croquet with the grandchildren and could usually get through the last wicket first to become ‘poison’ and knock out the older players so the younger ones could win. After the visitation the night before my Dad’s funeral, the guests were gone, and we gathered around Dad’s casket. We stood in silence for some time. There was some crying and some talking about the people who had come, about memories shared. Into this conversation, David said, ‘Grandpa’s poison. He got through the last wicket first.’ We all knew what he was saying and laughed.”

At seven years old, Sam is just getting the idea of the route the ball must take through the wickets from stake to stake and back. Each turn needing more than one stroke. He would have been the one my Dad would have helped to win. But with Bitsy (Elizabeth) too young to play at all (at two years old), playing with David, Sam and me, just didn’t have quite the dynamic that a full contingent of grandchildren and my Dad did. Yet, I had some sense of stepping into the grandfather role my Dad had, which I believe his Dad had before him.

At two years old, Bitsy fit perfectly in the child’s rocking chair that was my Mother’s. We have a picture of her in it at four years old. When I used it my Grandpa Erikson extended the front rockers so I wouldn’t rock over on my face. All three of our boys used it. We know it is at least 85 years old and suspect that it was not new when it came to my Mom. It is oak, which may account for its durability. It has been many colors over the years, and without an original patina, probably has no antique value. As we watch Bitsy rocking, we speculated whether it could go another 85 years and be there for her grandchildren’s children.

The rising and passing of generations evokes a bit of misty nostalgia, but even more a profound joy at the mystery of the sacrament of the present moment.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Watch the Grandchildren Grow

Reflections on Forty Years of Marriage

We got a lot of congratulations and expressions of admiration on our fortieth wedding anniversary. “Wow! You two still talk to each other, even enjoy each other!” one friend said. While not really looking for practical advice or the secret of success, we were often asked in effect, “What have you two done to do so well together for so long?”

As I jotted down a list of thoughts that our fortieth anniversary brought to mind, I began to see that this is the wrong line of questioning. In a culture that undercuts commitment and finds covenant incomprehensible, to ask what makes a marriage enduring and happy is understandable but backwards. Our transitory and subjective assessment of ourselves becomes the goal and measure. It feeds a narcissistic, ingrown vision of life and relationships. If God is even acknowledged, it is as an aid to our happiness.

I tell couples whose weddings I perform that real romance is not two people sitting on a bench in a beautiful park staring into each others’ eyes. Rather, it is two people sitting on the park bench both watching the same beautiful sunset. Our moments of greatest closeness have come from looking out from ourselves to parents, children (and now grandchildren), church and wider world. Our spiritual styles are different: I the contemplative explorer, Candy the practical caregiver. Though our efforts at sharing spiritual disciplines have never been very fruitful, that our gazes meet in Christ has united us at the core.

Recognizing that our marriage has endured happily for forty years is less an achievement than a gift of grace for which we can only be thankful. Such awareness prompts an entirely different line of questioning. Since marriage is a sacramental icon (a window into the holy) of the covenant between Christ and the Church, better questions start and end with Christ. How has Christ met us (together and individually) in our marriage? In what ways are we Church together? In what ways are we Christ to each other? In what ways are we Church and Christ to those around us?

Even as I write this I realize that Candy would say, “I’m not very good at explaining things. By the way, did you call someone who just got out of the hospital or home from a family funeral?” And even though I can sometimes respond with a testy, “Let me be the pastor,” I know this is exactly how she lives the answers to these Christocentric questions in our marriage. When criticism comes from the congregation, she winces and bears the hurt with me, and distills out the nugget I need to digest so I can better grow and serve. When the serendipities of ministry flood our hearts, she sings.

Having lived and served in Illinois, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas (and a sabbatical in Ontario), we have bonded with close friends scattered all over the world. The tug at our hearts for closer contact is always frustrated by the realities of time and distance. Yet, these relationships are our rich treasure. In this far flung fellowship we have shared marriages and divorces, births and deaths, children’s triumphs and disasters, hope and disappointment, love and injury, joy and grief. And each in their own way has been Church and Christ to us and shaped who we are as a couple and as individuals.

Our journey together has taken us through non-denominational, Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ congregations, and into wonderful relationships with Roman Catholic and Anabaptist communities. We have been profoundly touched by people from Haiti, Honduras, Thailand and Burma and elsewhere. We have sampled diverse regions of our country. We have been welcomed to share the joy of worship with African-American and Hispanic congregations, and from Pentecostal exuberance to Liturgical dignity. With both of us growing up in conservative, evangelical, Scandinavian, Baptist congregations, this journey through a broad spectrum of the Church has been amazing. I have often marveled at how graciously Candy has accompanied me as I forged into new frontiers of this adventure.

Most of our marriage has been lived at a distance from our parents. Even the years my parents overlapped with us in Illinois, we had established independent lives. Our parents have had the health and resources to live independently. As Candy’s Mom’s health and strength declined, her Dad was able to care for her at home until close to the very end. He still lives in that house, but the time for a change is approaching. My parents lived in a total life-care retirement community, so they could go to assisted living as they weakened, and my Mom could go to nursing care after Dad died.

While not always easy to maintain, we and our parents have balanced a lot of mutual love and support with respect and independence. Though our journey has taken us geographically, culturally and spiritually far from the paths of our parents, the solid grounding in Christ and the Church that they built has never been shaken. We have both had the privilege of being with our parents as they were dying (Candy her Mom, me my Dad), witnessing the serenity of one who can echo old Simeon, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30)

My mother is secure and well cared for in the nursing center where she lives, with my sister just a few minutes away. Candy’s Dad, however, will need to leave his home before too long. He’d like to be cared for by family, which means us, but he is reluctant to leave Minnesota. As a couple, we are trying to discern how to transition into a retirement ministry, get Erik launched into adulthood when he graduates from the University of North Texas in May 2009, and care for Candy’s Dad in a way that respects his wishes and affirms our marriage. I have already written about how Candy should get to call the shots on this transition, having conformed to my career for forty years (, yet negotiating the intricacies of this passage of our journey will take both of us. We will not only have to make the decisions together, we will need to be a closer team than ever as we get more and more involved with Candy’s Dad’s care.

While we recognize that our children will continue to have challenges in adulthood, just as we have, I don’t think much can match the joy of a great relationship with grown children with whom parents are pleased. Yes, Jon and David and their wives and children are on different paths from each other, but with such good roots and direction. So as a couple we celebrate and pray with our sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

Erik’s path has had more bumps than his brothers’ did by this point. The bumps were probably accentuated by some of the sharp turns and setbacks on our journey. But he’s into what should be his last semester before college graduation. Though the way ahead isn’t all clear, he seems to be taking charge of his own live and making mature decisions. Even if completely self-sufficient upon graduation (unlikely in this economy), even if he marries (seemingly no one on the horizon), we will still be engaged with Erik’s life. Paying off the parent student-loans will take a while. Candy sometimes says that we already spent our children’s inheritance on their education. I think we all believe that was a good deal.

The Christmas after Erik graduated from high school, Rachel and David gave us an “empty nest kit” (use your imagination) as a gift. With Erik’s education track, the empty nest has emerged only gradually. His graduation will be a major but probably not the final step for us into the full fledged empty nest. Nevertheless, we are taking this part of our journey hand-in-hand as a couple, much as we started forty years ago. Oh, we still have passion and exhilaration; we still know we’re on a new adventure that we’ve not been through before; we’re still learning and growing. Yes, we’re still looking outward for our challenges and joys: Erik, Candy’s Dad, a “retirement” ministry with the Church. The byproduct is a depth of intimacy we had no way of imagining on our honeymoon.