Invitation to a stranger

by Chris Gehrz

G. William Carlson died of a stroke on Feb. 12, 2016, at age 72. GW was a friend of Pietisten who advocated the Swedish Baptist Pietist tradition within the Baptist General Conference (Converge Worldwide) and at Bethel University, where he taught history and political science for more than 40 years. He edited The Baptist Pietist Clarion for 13 years and helped organize the 2009 conference at Bethel that led to the book “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity.” GW was a leading member of Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and served for 10 years on that city’s school board. He is survived by his wife, Cathy, their two children, Ian and Sara, and five grandchildren. I tried to tie together the common threads running through his many callings when asked to speak at GW’s memorial service in Bethel’s Great Hall (reprinted here).

My first conversation with G.W. Carlson took place two weeks shy of 14 years ago. I was in town for my brother’s wedding, and a cousin of mine insisted that I meet her favorite Bethel professor, so there I was. Not quite knowing what to make of the man, the beard, the books, or his displeasure at learning that I’d attended a private school in the suburbs rather than a public school in St. Paul. Half an hour later we parted company, joking that maybe I’d be asking him for a job someday, but pretty sure that we’d never see each other again.

Thousands of conversations later…our last one took place three weeks ago today, in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. It was the first time that I could honestly describe GW as “nonresponsive.” It was the first time that I would have more to say in a conversation than he did. And the last time.

I think we all had some sense that it might be my farewell, so Cath, Sara, and Gwen were kind enough to go for a walk while I held GW’s hand and prayed desperately for the right words to say.

At last, I pulled out my phone, opened a Bible app, and called up a passage I knew was meaningful to him, from Matthew 25:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt 25:37-40, NIV)

“When did we see you a stranger and invite you in…?” Truly, I once was a stranger – to Bethel, to Christian higher education, to social justice, to Pietism – and GW invited me in.

And he invited in so many more people who might otherwise have felt strangers to this place and to the joy of learning, to his church and denomination, to his neighborhood and city and country.

To Bethel he invited in students and faculty of color: brothers and sisters in Christ who too often are made to feel like strangers in this community by people like me. He invited in young women made to feel strange by other Christians for their intellectual curiosity, their abilities as athletes, or their calls to pastoral ministry.

To his church he invited in homeless from the neighborhood and immigrants from the other side of the world. To his own spiritual formation, he invited in Roman Catholics whose perspectives and practices most Baptists and evangelicals saw as strange, if not worse.

“I was a stranger,” said Jesus, “and you invited me in” (Matt 25:35, NIV).

Or as the NRSV puts it: Jesus the stranger was “welcomed” whenever GW welcomed a stranger to his mind, his classroom, his office, his church, his city or his nation.

What a word — welcome. What a word, and how thoughtlessly we often say it, without realizing the healing it describes and enacts.

Truly, when we welcome the stranger, we are saying, “It is well that you have come.”

It is well: what was sick is being made healthy; persons who were broken are being made whole and holy.

For what else is the Fall but this: created for relationship, we were made strangers to our Creator and to each other. By sin, we see God and everyone made in his image with fear and suspicion rather than awe and wonder.

But by grace, we replace estrangement with reconciliation. What else is our mission but this?

Because Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves,” the Apostle Paul admonishes that we ought to “regard no one from a worldly point of view.” We ought to regard no one — not Christian or Muslim, black or white, native-born or immigrant, Democrat or Republican — as the strangers that the world sees.

Friends, “the new creation has come”; God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ and [given] us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:15-18, NIV).

So I pray that you hear again the call — in GW’s booming, Jersey voice — to invite in the stranger and say to them the words that no doubt greeted our friend when he entered the presence of our Lord: “It is well that you have come.”

Peace to the memory of G.W.