Remembering a Pastor and the Legacy of Faith He Shared: Christopher P. Nelson

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. – Romans 14:7-8

In the past few years, I have written often about pastors I know who have died: my friend Pastor Sarah Nietz, Pastor John Hogansen, who was a pastor at my parents’ church while I was in college, and now once again I will write about another. But this time, I don’t write this as a colleague or an acquaintance, but instead as a parishioner. I write about my pastor who has died: Pastor Christopher Nelson.

My mom and I went to St. Philip the Deacon for the first time when I was twelve years old. We had been attended a Methodist church for years and were looking for a new church community. Little did we know when we entered that day that our lives and our community of friends would change forever. Pastor Chris preached that particular Sunday, and although I cannot recall what Chris proclaimed from the pulpit I do remember that it was the first sermon that I really listened to. Both my mom and I were in awe of his storytelling and his preaching. Overall, I was blessed throughout my youth at St. Philip in hearing dynamic preaching, but Chris was always one of my favorites. He often would start with a story and then leave you hanging for much of the sermon only to tell you the conclusion in the end. Chris introduced me to Walt Wangrein, one of my favorite Christian writers, and he helped me to pay attention to my own life in order to see what God was up to.

In those days, Pastor Chris was still a youth pastor. He would greet us on almost every Wednesday evening as we gathered for WIF (Wednesday is fun?!) for dinner with his guitar playing music for us to sing. He was the one who taught me the Lutheran Table Grace (Be present at our table Lord), but he also taught our confirmation classes to sing it to the tune of the Addam’s family, underwater, to the Gillette theme music and in many other variations. He led our retreats in which we would travel by school bus to Camp Onomia, and somehow in a bus of screaming teenagers he sat up front and remained calm. How he did it, I’ll never know. I remember that Chris would do an incredible impersonation of the old man at the beginning of the Martin Luther video we would watch year after year and he ran the most popular confirmation class: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Chris was our pastor, the youth’s. We claimed him and held onto him. He made faith real and personal and always invited us in with our questions. In fact, when I started to ask complicated questions of faith to our youth director, she would often redirect me down to Chris’s office. “Go talk to Pastor Chris,” she would tell me and I would go down to his office, only to find him waiting to discuss theology and grace with me.

Pastor Chris left St. Philip the Deacon when I was in 10th grade. It was his leaving that resulted in my being on the call committee for the next full time pastor which I often consider my first step in my call to ordained ministry. Throughout the years, I have kept in touch with Pastor Chris. I’ve called him up to ask advise on confirmation class expecting a busy Senior Pastor at such a busy church to not have time to call me back, nor to even remember me. But Chris surprised me, not only did he remember me but called me back within the hour. Since I came to the Twin Cities, Chris and I have had lunch once and have sat around the table together at a number of meetings. Most others have thought of him as colleagues, but for me, he willalwaysbemypastor. Itwasaprivilegetoshareatablewithhim.

When Chris was diagnosis with pancreatic cancer last Thanksgiving I started composing the letter I wanted to write to him to say thank you for all he taught me. Unfortunately he died before I ever wrote it. So if you learn nothing else from my newsletter article this month- it’s this: write the lettertoday,nottomorroworelseitmightbetoolate,likemineis. SoI’ll write it here.

Dear Chris,

I will never forget the night a small group of us went to work up at Camp Onomia together. It was a beautiful fall night and it was the first time I saw the Northern Lights. They lit up the sky with green streaks and incredible wonder. You were in awe of it along with the rest of us. It was amazing and a memory I have held onto throughout the years.

I also remember well the day our youth group said goodbye to you. You sat in the middle of us and we prayed together and laid hands on you as you went on to become the Senior Pastor at Bethlehem. How God blessed your ministry throughout the years!

Thank you for teaching me about God’s love that is there for me no matter what. Thank you for bringing joy and enthusiasm to ministry, for showing me that worship leadership can be done in a way that is authentic and also fun. You led us with passion and compassion and helped us to see beyond our selfish teenage-selves to notice people who were in need, all the while reminding us that we were God’s beloved whether we believed it or not.

Throughout the years, I have been blessed to share in ministry with you, knowing your support and encouragement. Thank you for leading me in my relationship with God and instilling within me a sense of purpose and call.

Our world has lost an incredible storyteller, preacher, leader, and innovator in the church. You will be dearly missed by so many of us. I look forward to the day when we will see each other again. For now I cling to the promises of God that you believed in so fervently and you taught to me and I pray that peace that passes all understanding will rest upon your family and all who love you.


Joanna Mitchell

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