Tribute to Douglas Glenn Cedarleaf

May 27, 1914 to November 27, 2000

by Peter Sandstrom

Remembering Douglas Cedarleaf:

A Brief Meditation on Genesis 6:4, a Forgotten Text

We gathered on the first bitter cold day of the Minnesota winter to bid farewell to Doug Cedarleaf. A looming high-pressure center had driven away every hint of cloud that Saturday, leaving only the yellow sun, low slung even at its zenith, and the clarity of a blue sky found only in the chill of a northern December. The memorial service was conducted on the last day of the church year; the sanctuary, caught in the transition, was already bedecked with the golden angelic banners and evergreen boughs of Advent.

After I learned of Doug’s death, I searched for texts with which to express some of my grief. It was the week of Christ the King Sunday and there was something fittingly triumphant about celebrating Doug’s memorial service at the climax of the church year. As I went about my various teaching and household responsibilities that week, what continually returned to my mind were variations of the lament, "How the giants have fallen!"

King David uttered something similar when he learned of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan: "How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished!" (I Samuel 1:27). My thoughts, however, went back to an even older use of the term in the Hebrew Bible. There is an obscure and tantalizingly brief passage in the early portion of Genesis concerning the age of Noah. I encountered it for the first time as a student at New College, the divinity school of the University of Edinburgh. My professor, John Gibson, Chair of Hebrew studies, relished in the exploration and delineation of interesting texts. From underneath his walrus mustache and in his rolling Scottish brogue, he spoke to us of these words of Genesis 6:4: "The Nephilim were on earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown." Gibson insisted that the best English translation of nephilim was "the mighty men of valor," and he maintained that the best way to interpret the text was to imagine a giant warrior or hero, who not only towered above the rest surpassing them all in skill, but who was also eminently respected, indeed revered, by the entire populace.

Gibson’s favorite example of such people were those behemoth Scots who go flinging twenty-foot tree trunks about during the Highland Games. I suggest, though, that more often than not, the examples of the nephilim which have had the most profound influence on our perspective have come to us through the texts of the great literary narratives: Odysseus, Achilles, Gilgamish, and Beoulwolf. Sometimes, however, we are fortunate and blessed to be in a time and place where we both live with and know one or more of those few who stand out from the rest in both physical and moral stature, and who are not only well known by their peers but are revered by them as well. Doug Cedarleaf was one of those rare people who was revered by his extended community, the Covenant Church.

In a denomination which was often divided along theological, political, and cultural lines, Doug was one of a handful of individuals who was highly respected and admired even by those who often disagreed with him. The list of such giants among us is rather small and subject to debate, but that Doug Cedarleaf was revered and one of the nephilim of our church would be quite difficult to contest. Doug walked among the giants because his integrity was beyond dispute.

To live in the time and acquaintance of a person of unchallengeable integrity can bear enormous rewards and provide resources. Doug was my pastor at North Park Covenant Church in Chicago as a boy. I have written previously in Pietisten [Summer, 1998] about Doug’s influence on me. His passionate preaching, the sense of reverence and aesthetic wonder he brought to worship, and his sheer presence as my pastor contributed mightily to my perception and to my understanding of Gospel as a Christian young person. Because we revered him, we stood near him with some trepidation, to actually approach him could send our pulse rates rising. There were some who had access to the friendly and dialogical facet of him, but it was not an element of his pastoral persona. Yet, this absence of a common touch did not detract from his being revered by his congregation or his community.

Doug Cedarleaf’s influence upon me extended beyond the time he was my pastor. In the late 1960s, I struggled earnestly with what it might mean to be a Christian in the context of the Vietnam War. At that time of my life and for many years afterward, I was a Christian pacifist. The Covenant church which I was attending in Rockford, Illinois, offered no support or any consideration for such a position. My attempts to develop a Christian and Biblical basis for conscientious objection were often met with hostility. Without support from my Christian community, I was isolated on a bleak tundra and I felt that aloneness keenly. Rather than a voice crying in the wilderness, I became a mute who was simply cutoff.

Into that isolation came the presence and reassurance of my old pastor! An issue of the Covenant Companion arrived with an article about Pastor Cedarleaf leading a peace march through the North Park neighborhood in Chicago. There was a photograph of him leading the procession, carrying a huge American flag, his chin jutting out, his eyes, furrowed brow, and waving hair emanating the same passionate intensity that I knew as a boy. A Christian giant, a mighty man of valor, a pastor I revered had marched out across the reaches of a vast wilderness to give me the word that I was not alone, that I was indeed marching with other Christians.

Where are the giants? Are they still to be found or have they retreated from the earth? As a middle-aged man, I sometimes feel that I have returned to the wilderness. I look for one whose word rings true and beautiful and passionate, whose heralding of the Gospel brings life and focus back to my faith, whose insight and integrity provide a compass setting on a horizon void of heights. If the ranks of the nephilim were small during the times of Doug Cedarleaf, then my generation has raised even fewer of their kind. The good and faithful are many, but those who are revered by the whole people are rare as landmarks on the tundra.

I have a secret hope that when I am old, some pastor will send a cadre of confirmands to interview me as a relic of the Covenant long past. One of the brave and curious among them will have heard a rumor and dare to ask me: "Did you really know Douglas Cedarleaf when you were a boy?" I will close my eyes for a moment and then look directly at them and say, "Yes, I lived in a time when a giant walked the earth."

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom