Remembering Don Paul Olson
In writing to renew my subscription to Pietisten, it was also my plan to order a gift subscription for Don Paul Olson, whom I met by chance in California this past summer where he was serving as chaplain at the Samarkand home in Santa Barbara.
In reminiscing about Minnesota and Covenant roots, I told him how much I enjoyed your publication and that I would arrange to send him a copy. He never received it, because he died a few weeks later, on August 27, of a heart attack. I am sorry that he never had a chance to read Pietisten. I think he would have relished it, as I do, for its incisive core, as well as its warm edges. He also would have appreciated its eclectic ecclesiastical tone, representing, as well as linking together, a loose and somewhat disparate community of philosophers, scholars, aesthetes, cynics, and sentimental Swedes (or Scandinavians, since you disclaim any specific ethnic ties) — a community forged by a particular tradition, or at least its own perception of that tradition.
Although I had not seen Don for almost 30 years, our few moments together last summer reminded me of the inevitable ways in which the lives of those who grew up in this tradition, especially in a small-town Covenant church (in this case, Wilmar, Minnesota), remain intertwined over the course of a lifetime. In our case, the ties were somewhat closer than usual because I was given his first name: he was Don Paul, I was Don Oscar. His father was our Sunday school teacher; Don was our Hi-League counselor, and he loved to converse about Covenant politics and polity with my grandfather.
When his father committed suicide after decades of severe depression, Don Paul's tribute, which he read at the memorial service and sent to friends of the family, ended with: "So what comes to us now out of your life, your struggle of faith, and your death as you chose it, is like a light that shines for all the rest of us when you yourself were overcome by darkness. When you no longer drew any benefit from you own faith, you went on believing on our behalf. You left us with a rebirth of faith and hope and, above all, love. And though you were just a man and not a saint, we celebrate your release from darkness and despair, as even now you are welcomed into the fellowship of light and peace. Say hello to Nath Franklin — he may help you straighten out your theology."
I thought of those words when I heard of Don Paul's death at the age of 57. He had, when I saw him, both "faith and hope." He spoke about how, by once again serving on the staff of a Covenant institution, his life had come full circle. And he was enthusiastic about the time spent at North Park Seminary in 1987, following the severe stroke he had suffered earlier that year.
He came to see this setback as a turning point in his life, as he wrote in the October 1987 issue of the Covenant Companion: "And now, though captive for a time, I am also liberated by love so that I may truly become more loving to all whom God sends me to care for, I need only be a more willing instrument of his peace and healing — which I've always known does not have to be a somber task but a delightful dance through this world of pain and wonder. Ours is not just a veil of tears, but a sacred time and sacred space, where even giggles and guffaws can help us out of our human predicaments and send the devil packing!"
May he have a joyful reunion with his father and Nath Franklin as they welcome him "into the fellowship of light and peace." I have no doubt he will enliven their theological discussion!