Personal Reflections on Thanksgiving Day

by Joanne Soderstrom

[The following has been taken from a Thanksgiving Talk given at North Park Covenant Church, Chicago, November, 2000. —Ed.]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures for ever, and His faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:3-5)

Part of the joy of being at my point in life is that so many of our relationships cross generations and many friends are of different generations of the same families. This reality is clearly portrayed here this morning at North Park Church.

You may recall our seminar in which the Reverend John Shea of Loyola University led us in stories of encounters with faith and of God's grace. He gave two reminders: "What are you, or have you, that you have not received?" and "as you have received, so give."

I thank God both for what I have received and also for the opportunities to be a part of the giving. Someone has said: "Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are." Joy has happened to me.

My parents, Lawrence and Arnhild Young, loved me. I cannot recall a time that I ever doubted it—even when they laid down the law (rarely). They included my older brother and me in most of what they did; and in those days much time was spent with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, nearly all of whom lived in Chicago. Our one bedroom apartment near Diversey and Lockwood on the Northside of Chicago was small, but large enough to sleep four, six, or eight depending on who was visiting and needed a place. They were true to the saying: "Where there is heart room, there is house room." Later, my father and uncles built our first house on the Southside and there was new joy when my sister was born during that time.

We may have been spoiled. I fondly remember when I was sick with chicken pox or some such disease, that my mom let my brother build a small snowman in the living room to entertain me. We were loved, included, and valued. Our questions and opinions were encouraged. My mother often talked with me about God's love and protection and she responded to my questions when protection and healing did not seem to come. We talked about mercy and forgiveness for sin and the fate of unbelievers. God's love and mercy were trusted. The Bible was read and believed, but thoughtful consideration was encouraged. There was also trust in the leading of God's spirit within us to direct behaviors and choices. It was a faith of "Lord I believe, help my unbelief." Mine still is. I can live with, and even appreciate, the mystery. I accept that I see as if through a glass darkly and I brighten to fresh encounters and revelations God provides.

Lest you now think I grew up in a cloister focused on faith, I'd better clear that up. My childhood love was Roy Rogers and my goal to be a cowboy. No skirts for me! And to own a horse!—A Palomino, of course. Holster and gun might be needed for rattlesnakes. I fantasized about being adopted by Roy, since he and wife Dale adopted kids and were Christians besides. I thought my parents could come along as helpers. Last year, my good friends Sally and Vince Anderson gave me a biography of Dale Evans with a greeting and signature from Roy's son, Dusty.

My earliest reading was the Sunday funnies with my dad and, I confess, they're still my most consistent reading choice. Until my dad's death, we'd still cut out choices to share with each other. I give thanks for simple joys.

In my youth "commitment" and "calling" were key words in the message to church teens in Trinity Covenant Hi-league and Covenant Harbor camps. These activities were fun. We may have gone mostly to see friends, but the message that God had a plan for your life lent weight to your choices and also value to your life. In schools and in counseling today, much is said about the importance of self-esteem. Such thinking is not misguided when we consider the Bible's message of God's caring for and redeeming of women and men.

I thank God for good people of other faiths such as Ahu, Shelly, Ron, and Roni. I believe that God is the source of all good even when people do not view that in just the same way as I do.

North Park as college choice was right for me. Young teachers such as Cal Katter, Chuck Wiberg, and Paul and Gladys Larson taught well then, and still can. Now they are friends. Dr. Ralph Lowell inspired me to be a Biology major along with classmate Pete Pearson. I cannot figure out why some Christians seem to fear the impact of science on faith. For me it has affirmed my faith. North Park had just purchased a model of the double helix of DNA at that time. Now I depend daily on recombinant DNA produced insulin. Thanks be to God.

The greatest impact on my life, though, was getting together with Mel Soderstrom, a young administrator. As my mother said, "Now he's a nice boy." I agreed and we married 35 years ago. Mel is an enabler, not as one who promotes another's weakness, but one who values and empowers. He has been a good father in both direct care and time for Kristen, Karl and Anne as well as in his encouragement of their adventures. He has modeled his faith in his treatment of others and in his work for the university and Church. His children and grandchildren love him.

With his encouragement and my studies, I have been a teacher of the hearing impaired in Chicago Public Schools and, more recently, a counselor and case manager for special education. I thank God for the opportunity to work in Chicago Public Schools. Their philosophy and practice allow me to live my faith at work with access to a range of children and families seldom found in any other setting. I am grateful for:

Their openness to children of all nationalities, races, faiths, and abilities.
Their provision of teachers trained to meet special learning needs along with special physical needs of children.
Their recognition that these children—we would call them children of God—may need food, clothing, health services, and counseling, along with education, and that the school can be a contact for access to such provisions.
Their directives that families may need tolerance and understanding during difficult and even homeless times.

Some of the most valuable preparation I have received for my work has come from opportunities North Park Church has provided. Preaching and worship have developed my faith, and the service opportunities have allowed human connections for faith at work.

Allowing us to build along with the Hi-leaguers' Appalacian Service Project in West Virginia was a gift to us. To work directly with refugee families sponsored by our church from war-torn parts of the world prepared me to receive such families at school with respect and understanding and awareness of resources now available to them. Our pantry has helped me connect families with emergency provisions in their own areas. This church has provided much of the village that has helped raise our children and even now our grandchildren. And I thank all of you who have taken the Baptismal vows in their support.

I sometimes can see God's care and direction in my life more clearly in the same way that one can more easily solve a maze. It may be hard to see the way clearly from start to finish without running into blind alleys; but when you start from the end and trace back, the path taken seems clear. And more importantly, God has provided all along the way.

Sometimes when all of this family, friends, work, and church seems overwhelming to me, I recall the framed statement shared by my friend Sandy Johnson: "Do not feel totally, personally, irrevocably responsible for everything. That's my job! Love, God." Thanks be to God!

Joanne Soderstrom lives in Chicago and is a member of North Park Covenant Church.

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