Norbert E. Johnson

1925 — 2009

by Timothy B. Johnson

Out of the whirlwind of things that have been swirling around in me, there are two images that seem to have a distilled fit. Dad’s hands and his heart.

Hands first. The other day while mowing our lawn, I spilled gasoline on my hands. Maybe because I’m so primed with memories of my dad, he immediately came to mind with that smell of gas on my hands: Dad at our cabin working down in the boat house on something; Dad under the car in the driveway cranking on some bolt; Dad in Chicago working on his lawn mower. His hands often smelled of gas or kerosene or grease—hands that knew their way around tools and wood and machine parts and paintbrushes. While he wasn’t a mechanic, he did his best to keep things working and to fix what was broken. And so his hands carried nicks and bruises and Band Aids—and skill.

But those hands were also used in other ways. They were laid upon the heads of the sick and the dying, upon the afraid and the confused, upon the newly baptized and the now deceased. They poured the water of baptism over the heads of babies and the newly converted. He loved to hold up the bread and the cup as he invited us to come and eat and drink at the Lord’s Table.

Dad’s fingers were worn smooth from handling books. Books were old and tattered friends, as marked up as his hands with underlinings, checks, and stars—places he’d return to again and again. Old books and new. He was always eager for something new and fresh – theology, history, biography, or adventure—stuff with substance. He drank deeply of the Bible, Thomas a Kempis, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Carlo Carretto, William Law—the list goes on. His fingers were worn smooth by those books.

During his last days, I looked at his hands a lot as I held and stroked them. I remembered being scooped up by them as a little boy and plunked on his shoulders. Imprinted in me, especially over this past year, is the sight of him reaching out from his wheelchair to embrace my family and me whenever we’d come into their room. He was so ready to embrace and be embraced.

His heart. Dad had a heart for the downtrodden and neglected. His heart was deeply pierced during WWII when, at 19, he was posted along a road with orders not to let anyone pass. He didn’t know where the road led. A day or two later he walked into Dachau concentration camp and saw Jewish survivors in their striped clothes and piles upon piles of bodies.

I believe this experience deeply embedded Dad’s heart with passion to always—always—pay attention to and make room for powerless people: the abused, the addicted, the lost—those whom the world passes by.

An early supporter of the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr., he spoke up against racism, bigotry, and what he called “pecking order.” He always loved the non-churched neighborhood folk. He advocated for women in ministry and he kept in close contact with pastoral friends who had left vocation and needed to know that they were still valued and loved. Dad affirmed the worth and equality of people across all kinds of lines.

Dad loved well. I thank God that so many of us saw, heard, and felt in his life the hands and heart of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.